Last night, as I'm doing my usual multitasking thing of watching television while thumbing through yesterday's New York Times Magazine, and contemplating tomorrow's blog entries, the back of my mind started ruminating on Kierkegaard's "leap of faith" concept.
It's true that Kierkegaard talked about the leap of faith in relation to religious sentiment--as the point when we truly believe in something greater than our hidebound--or hell-bound--existence. The idea behind the leap of faith, though, does not have to be bound up totally with the distinctly religious. Many of us come to a big leap because we can no longer live as hedonists chasing dreams nor as paragons of social order upholding the status quo. Both states of being cause us far more anxiety than necessary. We know there is more, and we must go there, regardless of what others think. We embrace the paradoxical--believing not because we're doing the right and proper thing but because we are obeying a deeper truth about the purpose of our lives. Essentially, we decide to pursue a higher purpose.
The leap, then, comes from a radical understanding of one's self-truth, of how that self-truth is more important than overindulgence or hyper-responsibility, and how that truth relates to something greater than ourselves.
Last July, at the midpoint of my mid-forties, I gave myself permission to leave an otherwise infuriating, soul-strangling, bill-paying job and declared myself a full-time freelance writer. No more half measures. Forget about the well-meaning advice and the what-ifs that for years conspired to make me fearful of my writing and myself. With nothing under my professional belt other than two blogs, an article pitched to my alumni quarterly magazine, and no connections to the world of publishing, I figured I had enough to get me started.
Yet in a world dominated by logical Hegelian dialectics and duty-bound Kantian principles, taking this totally Kierkegaardian leap into the unknown at middle age looked to everyone like a leap off a precipice into a maelstrom. Even I knew that there were no guarantees of success and a high probability of failure.
I'd had it though with all the caveats from friends and the well-structured advice of experts. All my life, I had tried to walk away from writing like it was a selfish lover, bury it like a bag of garbage, and outrun it like a bad reputation. I'd tried to twelve-step it from my consciousness by admitting I was powerless over it and asking God to take it away from me.
God wasn't much help there. Maybe because the writing was actually a gift from God. It was up to me--listen to what others thought, or fearlessly embrace that gift.
About six months into my fearless leap, the world started to respond. I started to make a small amount of income as an editor, and sold another article. Some people started telling me that it took serious balls letting go of adult responsibility and following what I perceived to be my destiny. Some others made it clear that I should stop the nonsense and get a real job. Between the two, I started to wonder about myself.
What if an all my fearlessness was actually just foolishness?
Sometimes I worry that my leap of faith is really the foolish embrace of a wholly impractical truth. What if I am just enough of a writer to make a little bit of money, but not enough money to put food in my belly or a roof over my head? What if my great leap is giving me great experiences, but somehow rendering me unemployable in the workaday world?
If I am a fool and a hack, then there is a solution: accept my limitations and devote myself to a simpler, acceptable, settled-down kind of life. I could go back to retail, then buy a few books on cooking, cleaning and house repair. I could move in with a domineering man and teach myself to be happy in a lesser role.
The thing is, I had already tried that back in my twenties and thirties. Twice before, I failed miserably in the role of settled-down, upstanding citizen.
So, when the fear grips me, I hear myself think: have I taken the too-long leap? Is my fearlessness actually just a bunch of foolishness? Most of the time, fearless me can answer "I doubt it." Success in the writing life, I know, is a slow thing, even for people with lots of past experience. So, I don't judge, nor do I justify. I just write.