This is the first post in my “Countdown to 30” series! In one week – on January 3rd, a birth date I share with JRR Tolkien (as well as Mel Gisbson – sigh) – I will turn 30. I’m someone who takes milestones like this seriously. I don’t subscribe to the view that it’s “just another day” – instead I try to take the opportunity milestones afford to reflect on my life, my values, and my priorities for the future. This tendency is particularly pronounced on my birthday, since it’s right at the start of a new year, a time when people traditionally take stock of their lives and make resolutions.
That’s why I’ve chosen to launch my new website and blog project on my 30th birthday: it seems a propitious time to start a project which I hope will define much of the next stage in my career. Over the next seven days running up to its launch I’ll be indulging in a little retrospection, looking back over my life so far and picking out some pieces which seem important to my current work and future plans. Today, I begin with a vignette which sets up the series.
For a whole hour, we talked about me. We discussed my aspirations and dreams, my skills and weaknesses. Discussed my family life – their professions, their hobbies, my relationship with them. Explored the passions and frustrations of my current job. Wondered aloud about my future, where I wanted to be in ten years, what I sought to achieve. And finally, the dialogue complete, she had a diagnosis:
“James”, the high-powered careers advisor said as she leaned toward me, an infectious gleam in her eyes, “you should be a priest!”
A pause, as I digested this entirely unexpected outcome, and then: “But I don’t believe in God!”
My advisor released an expletive.
At the time – twenty two years old, fresh out of college, working as a high school teacher with Teach First (the UK’s equivalent to Teach for America) I thought the idea of me as a priest was ridiculous. But as I’ve approached my thirtieth year I recognize there was deep wisdom in my career advisor’s words: she saw something within me it would take me almost ten years to discover.
Given such numerous and specific requirements, “priest” was a wise career suggestion! Years before I had discovered the Humanist community at Harvard, before I had become a writer and public speaker, before I had come out as gay and become a gay rights activist, before I had cultivated a passion for the development of moral communities for Humanists, before I ever decided I might want to lead such a community, my advisor had hit on an almost ideal career. But, at the time, I thought there was no such thing as a priest – or anyone who plays a similar role to a priest – who doesn’t believe in God. I hadn’t heard of Ethical Culture then. I’m glad I’ve found it now.