Monday, March 7, 2011

How Did Ross Douthat Want My Life To Go?

He writes: "there are different kinds of premarital sex. There’s sex that’s actually pre-marital, in the sense that it involves monogamous couples on a path that might lead to matrimony one day. Then there’s sex that’s casual and promiscuous, or just premature and ill considered." The rest of the column is about how happy he is that less of the last two kinds of sex is going on these days.

My life right now is wonderful. Being a philosophy professor at the National University of Singapore is a great job. They give me plenty of time to do my own creative work, and I have a lot of good students who are fun to teach. (Grading lots of papers can be a chore, but if that's the worst ten percent of your job, you've got a good one.) 30 is a young age for a philosopher, and there's this vast open life ahead of me that I can fill with the best work I'm capable of.

The path here was a winding one. I graduated from high school in Raleigh, went to Harvard, and did my Ph.D at the University of Texas except for one year in the middle developing awesome metaethics skills as a visiting doctoral student at Michigan. Jobs as a philosophy professor are really hard to get, so I sent off 99 job applications to all corners of the globe. I got two offers -- a three-year deal at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey, and a tenure-track gig at the National University of Singapore. And that was very fortunate. Maybe if I hadn't gotten those jobs, I would've been able to find some kind of short-term gig in some random part of America and try the job market for another year, but the financial crisis hit next year and academic job openings were being canceled left and right.

I don't think it's reasonable to expect a smart lovely lady to just follow me all across the country and to the far end of the world. For the most part, the women I've been attracted to have had their own awesome plans. Maybe it could've happened at some time in the past when women didn't have any opportunities besides attaching themselves to a man, but just like I don't want to own slaves, I don't want such monstrosities to obtain for my personal benefit. And especially, you don't hope for someone to end up with you because an unjust world crushes their dreams.

I didn't think this way at the time, but looking back, it looks like the path to matrimony and the path to having an awesome job like this one were a "choose only one" kind of deal. I'm really happy with how things turned out! And part of why I can be so happy is because of sex where neither of us expected that we'd get married -- sex that Ross would probably call casual and promiscuous.

It took me until age 23 to lose my virginity. Longtime readers will know that the circumstances were unusually bizarre (see 5). Before that, I used to get depressed a lot. Often if I got to thinking about girls I'd liked and how things had gone badly again and again and again, I'd sink into this stupor where I'd just sit in one place and not be able to move, even to do something that I knew would distract me. On the upside, my abject loneliness led me to write Possible Girls, and creating something beautiful out of your pain does something to redeem it. But the fact that misery can lead to great art isn't much of an argument for misery.

Even a completely screwed up first sexual experience did a lot to make me happier and psychologically healthier. The depression hit much less often, and in the late afternoon I didn't need to dread the dark cold spirit that waited for me on lonely nights. Then at age 25 I had a four-month relationship with an amazing woman -- one in which we agreed in advance that there was no chance of things going long term -- and that cured it for good. (This isn't just a way men feel about sex, by the way -- I think Nice Jewish Girl tears a hole straight through the bulls-eye on that issue. Thanks, people at Unfogged, for the link.)

If you ran simulations of my life starting at the beginning of grad school, there's a couple ways it could've fit Douthat's ideals. Sure, in some really lucky ones I hit the jackpot and end up marrying an awesome woman and we can both get great jobs in the same place! But it's more likely that I find myself a long-term partner and restrict my employment horizons to where I'm in a mediocre job with bad students and no time to work on my own creative projects. And there's probably plenty of outcomes where I'm happily employed but I passed up my chances with the women I described above and the sweet young lady I met in line caucusing for Obama and... well, anyway, I wonder how good I am at fighting off the late-night catatonic depression in that story. I think the bad outcomes where I'm left with nothing but my commitment to only having sex in a monogamous relationship outnumber the great ones. I don't really want to think about those.

But that's not where I am now. Tomorrow I'm having dinner with a very smart young lady I met a few months ago. Her life story is more or less like mine, starting in the States and following her interesting interests around to Southeast Asia. I don't think it's likely that we're going to end up together in the long term, just because we're prepared for our various callings to pull us apart. But I'm really happy that I'll get to be with her for a little while! And when I look at the kind of life where I'd live up to the ideals Ross sets out, it's probably not nearly as good as the one I'm living.
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