Life changes

There will be a lot of changes in my life over the next week.  Two big ones I want to talk about here.

First, I have quit my job at the Secular Student Alliance.  This has been coming for a few weeks now.  It was an amicable split and it was certainly not a quit-or-be-fired situation.  My bosses were all pleased with my job performance.  It was me who quit.  I will not go into the details why.  Suffice that it was the right decision for me.  August Brunsman, the Executive Director of the SSA, and Lyz Liddell, the Director of Campus Organizing, have been  spectacular to me during my time there.  They have been quite literally the best bosses a guy could ask for.  Whoever takes my place will be one of the most fortunate people in the atheist movement.

Of course, I couldn’t sleep last night.  So around 4am I got up and I went for a walk under the stars to get some air and to give my mind time to turn.  My thoughts drifted to one of the best friends I made in college: Stephanie.  She was, perhaps, the best singer to ever come through the music program at Missouri State.  She was the type of singer who could go anywhere and do anything.  She was going to be a star.

Then she graduated and decided to settle down, have a family, get her MBA, and live the quiet life.  This made no sense to me, and being the opinionated person I am, I told her so.  I told her that she had a gift and to not pursue it was to throw it away.  Other people would literally kill to be able to do what she could do, and I wondered how she could do something else without feeling tremendously guilty.  She listened to me, but went on with her life anyway.

Years later I called Stephanie to tell her I had been wrong.  Nobody owns your life but you, and you must do what makes you happy.  Even if you are especially good at something, even if you’re the best at something, nobody gets to demand you do it to the exclusion of all other factors in your life.  I wish I had understood that at the time.

I know there are people who will tell me that I owe it to the movement, to the upcoming atheist generation, to stay in a position that was not working for me because I was good at it.  These people will not know any of the circumstances of my departure, but will express some degree of ownership of my life by trying to dictate what I do with it.  I don’t blame them.  I really do understand.  They do it out of concern.  The people who would have me stay are thinking of atheistic teens who need help and wondering how I could not care.

The reality is that I do care.  I care with every part of me.  I always have.  I still do, and I believe my work over the last 20 months has reflected that.  That’s not why I’m leaving this job.  If all being at the SSA meant was working with high school students to make a difference, I wouldn’t be leaving.  But there’s more to it, scarcely any of which I’m going to get into, that made being there a tremendous drain on my psychological health.   Even with that, this is not a decision I have come to lightly.

My work has demonstrated my commitment to atheistic students.  The extra hours, the battles; I’d do them all for free, and will continue to do so when it’s requested/required of me.  I am not abandoning the students for which I care very deeply.  Any of them out there can still email me to ask for advice – ditto for their parents.  I will still write on their behalf if it’s needed.

I can work for an organization that is part of the political advancement of atheism, or I can work as a writer and a voice, a person who sees what is going on and attempts to tell the full truth, as I see it, regardless of who it offends or what bridges it burns.  But rarely are the two compatible, and I have learned that I am incapable of being discreet enough to live comfortably in most organizational environments.  I am not a political creature, to say the least, which is what one needs to be in order to work for an organization partaking in movement politics.  So although I am proud of my work with the SSA, as are my superiors, I believe I can better serve atheism as a writer and activist.  Even if I can’t serve atheism better this way, I can certainly do it with a much higher degree of peace in my own life.  And so that is what I will do.  In my new capacity the SSA will always have my support.  They remain one of the best-staffed, most efficient, and most effective organizations in this movement.

Which brings me to my next big thing: late next week I will be moving my blog to Patheos where I will join Hemant Mehta at the atheist portal.  This was actually a more difficult decision than leaving the SSA (and I hope you can realize what a painful decision that has been).  Writing for FtB has been one of the greatest privileges of my life.  There are so many luminaries here.  That I have gotten to share a platform with so many of my heroes has been a constant source of pride for me.

So why am I leaving?  Money.  Patheos pays more.  With a full-time job, I did not need to worry about money and could write wherever I wished.  But with the prospect of leaving the SSA looming, I had to find some way to make ends meet.  I have been an atheist activist for about a decade now and did not want to stop, so I wanted to find some way to make ends meet that allowed me to keep contributing.  Moving to Patheos is what has allowed me to jump straight to writing to pay the bills rather than Taco Bell.  But Patheos and FtB both know, by my own assertion, that I remain incredibly loyal to Freethoughtblogs.  I always will.  I love their ideals, I love their attitude, and I love their writers.  FtB was my first real home as a blogger, and it will always feel like home to me.

All of this is why I asked how you all would react to an invitation to do recurring donations to the site, since this is now my life and sole source of income.  I’m still not sure if I will do that.  I have no qualms asking people to donate to a cause.  However, I have severe reservations about asking people to support my livelihood.

This has all been a very emotional whirlwind for me.  Rest assured I could make more money doing something other than writing.  But I want to stay in atheism.  Fighting for this cause is my passion.  It means almost as much to me as breathing, and writing for Patheos will allow me continue to dedicate the majority of my time to trying to orchestrate some of the changes I want to see in the world.

At every step of this process I have been wracked with guilt and have been petrified that people whose opinions mean quite a bit to me would not understand.  At every step, my worries have proven unjustified.  I have had the good fortune to be supported by my now ex-bosses at the SSA as well as the bloggers here at FtB.  I am lucky to know people who look out for my well-being, wherever it leads.

So where do we go from here?  I hope you’ll follow me to my new home at Patheos.  I have told the operators of Patheos that I have no intention of retracting my claws one inch and they are ok with that.  I still consider myself an ally to FtB and will give them a shout out at every talk I give.

I will also continue busting my ass to finish my book.  I’m over 10,000 words now and have oodles of material to use.

I will do more in-depth blog posts, since now my blogging will be my job rather than something I sneak in after a long day at the office (and most days after exercise).  Hopefully this will allow me to write more about what’s going on in the atheist movement and in greater detail.  At least, that’s the plan.

I will accept more invitations to speak or debate.  With a full-time job, speaking is something I’ve done on the side, so I’ve had to turn a lot of people down.  Now I will be much more available (I will also remain on the speakers bureau with the SSA).  However, I will now have to begin being insistent on an honorarium.  Up until now I have always spoken for free (and have, in fact, steadfastly refused attempts to pay me, much to the chagrin of my bosses and family).  I remember how grateful I was that PZ Myers spoke for free at the first Skepticons and wanted to pay it forward.  Recently, due to the insistence of those close to me whom I trust, I have listed an optional $100 honorarium (that I never collected on).  I will still speak for free to groups getting on their feet, but for all others that $100 per speaking gig will become a solid portion of my cash flow now.

For the next few days I’m going to take some time to myself and try to get past all the emotions before settling into my new job as a blogger/writer.  I will check the comments of this post and read my email (wwjtd21[at]gmail[dot]com), but I likely will not respond immediately.  Please be patient – I need some personal time.

This has been a very difficult post to write.  Thanks for listening and for any support you send my way.  *hug*

I’ll see you when I get back.

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About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.