Is This Thing On?
dispatches from a burned-out mind
Every couple of days, a notification that I’ve got a new Substack subscriber hits my inbox. Just a little message telling me that someone, somehow, came across something telling them that I’ve got an outpost here — in theory, if not in practice — and that they’ve take the time to fill out the form to say they’re interested.
For every one of you who have signed up — there are, amazingly, 233 of you as of this writing — I want to thank you for your interest.
I know I’ve not been making much use of this. I apologize if I mismanaged expectations. 100% of my writing and editing time have been going to my day job at 1P5, and I’ve not had enough gas in the tank to do even that as well as I’d like.
And that’s what I want to talk about today.
I already wrote a thing a little while ago about running on empty, but I’m going to assume my audience here isn’t necessarily identical to the one I wrote that for. In fact, I hope you’re not. Because this space is where I plan to be a bit more candid, more personal, more write-from-the-gut uninhibited. My other website is a specifically religious publication, and by necessity, is more constrained. This Substack is not.
It is instead the place where a guy who is struggling with religion, and society, and mid-life, and his own failings, and his widely varying interests, is hoping to look at the intersections of all of these things and try to tease the more worthwhile bits out.
I promise you that I will be inconsistent in my offerings. At least for now. I am the world’s worst multitasker. I only have enough brain bandwidth for one social media account on each platform. I notoriously neglect any second account I set up for work purposes. I am not a creature of structure or schedule, but I am absolutely a creature of habit. I reach for the same coffee cup every time; I also tend to write on the same platforms. At some point, I might be able to juggle two. It’s my hope, instead, that at some point in the not too distant future I can merely devote the majority of my time to something new.
The bottom line is that the past seven years of covering corruption in the Catholic Church has ground me to a pulp. I recognized in 2017 that the reason I was fighting so hard against the infiltration of the Church was because it was the thing that supplied me with my entire identity, and that it had become for me a matter of survival. This realization was the beginning of a chain of events that led me to an understanding that my identity needs therefore to be re-configured.
I’ve been burned out for at least two years, juggling personal drama with an ever-worsening state of affairs in the religion that has dominated my thinking and many of my personal choices and activities since I was 15. Almost 29 years straight of online apologetics, missionary work, youth grouping, door-to-door evangelization, religious instruction, theological study, writing, and more.
By the end of 2020, I felt like a husk; three-and-a-half months into 2021, I’m only just starting to get better, but it’s still delicate. I am, I’ve realized, wrestling an existential crisis, with all its attendant questions: What does it all mean? Why am I here? What do I really believe? Can things really get better? Does anything I do matter?
Cliché, yes. But nevertheless, a real battle.
I’ve also begun to realize I’m a prisoner of my own success. Founded in 2014, 1P5 grew quickly to be the most-read website in the traditional Catholic niche not long after it was founded. It stayed there for a few years before receding quite a bit, in part because I simply won’t stay on the sensationalist path common to the genre, and no doubt in equal measure due to my own failings. But we’ve retained a large core audience, and I find my continued philosophical and theological exploration has caused me to be in increasing friction with, at the very least, a vocal minority. Most of the supportive comments I get come to me through private channels, likely because the individuals making them don’t want to deal with the mob any more than I do. Either way, intentionally or not, I created certain expectations when I built the thing that I am clearly no longer meeting with a large section of the tribe.
There’s a football idiom that many of you are probably familiar with:" “Hearing footsteps.” When a quarterback gets sacked too many times, he can become self-conscious. The opposing team’s defense gets inside his head, and he starts flinching reflexively even when he’s not in danger, thinking someone is coming up behind him for a big hit. For at least the past year, I’ve been hearing footsteps. All the time. My inner editor constantly warns me: “If you say the thing you’re really thinking, they’ll come shrieking out of the woodwork to tell you that you’re out of bounds.” It causes me to be less than honest. It causes me to pull my punches. And the more I tiptoe because I just want to avoid the drama, the less authentic I am as a writer and a podcaster. This is simply not acceptable, because if I have a gift, it’s a sort of vulnerable authenticity that connects me to my audience.
This is not as easy as it may seem. The pieces I write that do the best are the ones that leave me feeling totally exposed and expecting a sort of emotional violence in response. It’s both uncomfortable and thrilling, but it’s the only way to cross the divide. The most often-received compliment of my work has been, “You took what I was feeling and found a way to put it into words, even though I couldn’t.”
But not everyone is so supportive.
Repeated conversations with people on social media about the soul-deep crisis in the Catholic Church, the way it has caused some folks to understandably leave in hope of greener pastures, or the theological questions it prompts confirm this. We have a LOT of tribal gatekeepers, and it’s stultifying. On a recent Facebook post where I favored cognitive liberty over compulsion — even predicting that the importance of my position would be verified by the pushback I’d get for saying it — I was met with instant, self-satisfied accusations that I’m an Americanist heretic; separately, there were proffered reminders that the Church taught it was A-OK to burn heretics at the stake, so obviously such liberty is condemned.
I kid you not.
This is but a sampling. Time after time, I try to offer something thought-provoking, hoping for a good discussion. There are usually (but not always) a few who are up for that kind of thinking; but too often, there’s mostly just a clamor that This Is Not Who We Are and This Is Not What We Think.
In a way, I’m grateful for all the thought policing. It’s helped me to see that traditionalism, as opposed to Tradition, is just another ideology, subject to corruption and failure. An oxbow lake. An ethos easily exploited by demagogues and grifters (but I repeat myself). And as American traditionalism has become more and more entangled with Trumpism, and COVID trutherism, and a growing “conspirituality” (as one fellow put it), it has become clearer and clearer to me that I no longer have a home there. Whether they left me or I left them is immaterial. When it comes to the niche my publication exists in, I have become the obvious outlier.
Rather than making me want to grab the nearest ideological fig leaf and cover my nakedness, all of this has made me want to cast these ill-fitting garments aside and seek change. I am not someone who settles down in one place and stays there in the best of times. The number of physical moves I’ve made in my life attest to this, as does my ever-evolving set of ideas. I’ve been a “traditionalist” Catholic for a long time - 17 years. And though I still believe in much of what the Catholic liturgical, theological, and devotional tradition offers — as many Catholics have also been discovering over the past year — I won’t be trapped in the confines of an end-times cult or collective LARP. I’m not interested in fabulist fetishism, as a friend calls it. Instead, I’m looking at others who are swimming in bigger ponds, looking at bigger ideas, trying to zoom out of the cultural melee and figure out not just how we got here, but what we can do to salvage things and keep going.
I read an article recently that really struck me. Written by Ryan Holiday, a media strategist-turned-guru who writes books about Stoic Philosophy, it’s entitled, The Definition of Success is Autonomy.
Yes, the title of the piece is somewhat self-explanatory. But I want to dig into it a bit anyway.
Holiday notes our human proclivity to think that if we had just little bit more money, fame, or power, “we’d finally have some say over the direction of our lives and of our world.” He talks about a new documentary about Taylor Swift, “a young woman who has accomplished in her field nearly everything you could ever dream was possible.”
“She’s rich,” Holiday explains. “She’s famous. She has millions of fans and followers. She’s sold tens of millions of albums. She’s won Grammys. She has challenged and beaten Apple and Spotify, as well as a man who sexually assaulted her.”
But it doesn’t translate into power.
And yet there she is, on film, confronting her manager, her parents, her publicist and nearly everyone who works for her, fighting—no, begging—for permission to make a standard political contribution to a candidate in a Democratic primary election in her home state.
Eventually, she breaks down in tears. Why can’t you let me do this? Don’t you see that it’s important to me?
You might think that all this resistance is just a quirk of her particularly risk-averse team, that it would be easy to push past it, but it isn’t. With power and success come all sorts of limitations and constraints. It’s not worse than oppression or actual slavery or incarceration, obviously, don’t be crazy. But it doesn’t change the fact that to experience the kind of suffocating restriction on display in the Taylor Swift documentary is to feel like you are living within a prison of your own making, a slave to what you have built.
Many of my readers, most of whom are politically conservative, will be tempted to point out that she shouldn’t be giving money to a Democratic candidate. (Hey look, there’s my internal editor again, anticipating audience objections!) But that misses the point. The point is, as we build ourselves into successful people, we often build walls around ourselves as a side effect. Swift’s inability to use her influence in politics is, on a macro scale, what my not being able to question the Catholic Church to my very orthodox Catholic audience is on a micro scale.
To illustrate the point further, Holiday quotes journalist and author Mark Bowden — speaking, interestingly enough, about the former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein — about the restrictions power — even tyrannical power — brings:
One might think that the most powerful man has the most choices, but in reality he has the fewest. Too much depends on his every move. The tyrant’s choices are the narrowest of all. His life—the nation!—hangs in the balance. He can no longer drift or explore, join or flee. He cannot reinvent himself, because so many others depend on him—and he, in turn, must depend on so many others. He stops learning, because he is walled in by fortresses and palaces, by generals and ministers who rarely dare to tell him what he doesn’t wish to hear. Power gradually shuts the tyrant off from the world. Everything comes to him second or third hand. He is deceived daily. He becomes ignorant of his land, his people, even his own family. He exists, finally, only to preserve his wealth and power, to build his legacy. Survival becomes his one overriding passion. So he regulates his diet, tests his food for poison, exercises behind well-patrolled walls, trusts no one, and tries to control everything.
The whole Holiday piece is worth reading, but his conclusion struck me, hard. So much so that I’ve been thinking about it for weeks. Here it is. See if you identify:
Today, I don’t define success the way that I did when I was younger. I don’t measure it in copies sold or dollars earned. I measure it in what my days look like and the quality of my creative expression: Do I have time to write? Can I say what I think? Do I direct my schedule or does my schedule direct me? Is my life enjoyable or is it a chore?
In a word: autonomy. Do I have autonomy over what I do and think? Am I free?
Free to decide what I do most days…
Free to do what I think is right…
Free to invest in myself or projects I think worth pursuing…
Free to express what I think needs to be expressed…
Free to spend time with who I want to spend time with…
Free to read and study and learn about the things I’m interested in…
Free to leave the office to enjoy dinner with my family before tucking my kids into bed…
Free to pursue my definition of success…
This also always helps me to weigh opportunities properly. Does this give me more autonomy or less?
Screw whether it’s fancy.
Screw whether it’s what everyone else is doing, whether it gets me a few more followers or a couple extra dollars. What matters is freedom.
Because without freedom, what good is success? As Seneca said, “Most powerful is he who has himself in his own power.”
For a long time, this is a big part of what has been missing from my life, and I couldn’t figure it out. And it has been eating me alive.
I don’t get up in the morning and come to my desk excited to write about the latest scandal in the Church. In fact, it makes me feel sick. But I’m also not excited about trying to sell a fairytale of how nice things could be when I know they’re actually pretty bad. I neither want to dispense black pills nor blow sunshine, so to speak.
Part of my problem is that I’m on a different journey right now. It’s a journey of self-discovery, of identifying, addressing, and healing old wounds. Of battling through the interior demons of a mid-life crisis at a time where there’s very little non-crisis stuff going on in the outside world. Of figuring out how to re-adjust my perspective to welcome my unexpected eighth child the summer before I turn 44. Of having to take seriously my now deteriorating health, rooted in years of unhealthy coping mechanisms and self-neglect. Of learning a lot of stuff I should have already known, but left by the wayside either because I was too lazy or too arrogant to think I needed it (and sometimes both). Of re-orienting all my priorities, because the things I used to put first, even when they were important, became all consuming — to the detriment of myself and everyone I love.
One of the ways I’m dealing with all of this is by consuming new information voraciously. I’m in the middle of no fewer than 8 books right now, and I’ve already finished 6 others this year. I’m becoming increasingly interested in podcasts featuring big thinkers — Jordan Peterson remains at the top of my list — despite never having made time for them before. I’m following more and more interesting & challenging people on social media, even as I reduce my interactions with those in my pre-existing ideological ghettoes, or simply mute or block those with nothing to offer but mindless contrarianism. I have to tell you, I’ve been reading and listening to things outside of my comfort zone lately, and it has been really fantastic.
And I want my work to reflect this.
Joe Rogan immediately comes to mind as a model of this approach. I don’t watch his podcast religiously, but his unrivaled success is, I think, a function of his being an extreme and sincerely curious generalist. I don’t know if he can properly be called a polymath, but he’s on that spectrum. He’s genuinely interested in just about everything. He interviews a musician one day, a scientist the next, and an author of history the one after that. He talks about everything from UFOs to psychadelics to politics to cancel culture. In so doing, he weaves together many threads, and he’s mapping the wild, weird landscape of the 21s century.
As Michaela Peterson said to her father, the aforementioned Jordan, on a recent podcast, “That’s what I’ve done throughout my life is, ‘Hey, that person’s really smart and interesting;’ try and…achieve what they’re achieving, and then once you get there, you [again] pick somebody above you. And the problem is that means you’re always kind of unfulfilled, but it also means you’re always growing.”
Shouldn’t we all be doing that? Shouldn’t we broaden our interests, rather than narrowing them? Shouldn’t we read widely, discarding what’s bad, keeping what’s good, breaking as many intellectual eggs as it takes to make the omelet of our perspectives? Shouldn’t we be on a constant pursuit of self-discovery & self-improvement?
Shouldn’t we favor cognitive liberty, even if the LARP kids want to burn us at the stake for it?
So as I re-orient myself and process all of this information, I feel my brain and my desire to create beginning, ever-so-slowly, to grow back. If you’re burned out and you keep going anyway, running only on fumes, the damage you’ll do to yourself is so much worse than it would be if you’ve got even a little bit of something in the tank. I’m going to have learn better going forward how to manage my time, how to pace myself, because I’m at least two years past burnout, and my engine was in danger of seizing up permanently.
But I’m finally a bit excited again. Excited by the idea of freedom. The freedom to make mistakes. The freedom to hash things out without worrying about whether or not I’ve crossed some dogmatic line or someone calls me a heretic for doing it. We care so much about getting everything so damn right, that we lose any semblance of curiosity or discovery. The process of properly understanding things is a messy one that necessarily involves deconstruction, examination, and critical inquiry — none of which my more rigorist co-religionists seem inclined to tolerate. Coloring inside the lines has its purpose, but sometimes you’ve just got to make a mess. We are benefited by meeting new, interesting people with different perspectives — people like my friend Kale Zelden, who I’ve just gotten to know over the past year. Kale helped me to recognize that I was grappling with a meaning crisis and a broken sense-making apparatus at a moment when I had all but completely lost my way, and introduced me to the thinkers of the so-called “Ideological Dark Web” (IDW). This, along with Kale’s own often-challengingly different perspective, have opened doors to new understandings and heuristics at a time when I was desperate for them. Together, they’ve helped me to see that the need for epistemological humility — a phrase I literally mocked when someone used it with me a few years back — is something we all desperately need. I can’t overstate the positive impact all of this has had in my life.
To quote Peterson again:
What is your friend: the things you know, or the things you don't know? First of all, there's a lot more things you don't know. And second, the things you don't know is the birthplace of all your new knowledge! So if you make the things you don't know your friend, rather than the things you know, well then, you're always on a quest in a sense. You're always looking for new information in the off chance that somebody who doesn't agree with you will tell you something you couldn't have figured out on your own! It's a completely different way of looking at the world. It's the antithesis of opinionated.
Since the pandemic started, I’ve been annoyed, ashamed, humbled, broken down, lifted up, confused, confounded, comforted, connected, and most importantly loved in ways I’ve never felt before. The end result for me is a new beginning, and I want to use it to build new things. I think that even as I shift some (but not all) of my focus away from the deeply personal project I’ve been engaged in for the past 7 years, I still have something new and useful to offer. I want to help myself and others make sense out of an existence that is increasingly very difficult to navigate. I don’t have a full plan, not yet, but I’m feeling my way forward, looking for the path, and I’m getting closer to it.
I can feel it. It’s almost within reach.
If you’re actually still reading, and you’re up for joining me on this journey, I’d love to have you.