My Strange Vocation, Part 6
Owning a house changed my life in a lot of unexpected ways. I had to become much more mechanically-minded, because we could no longer call the landlord when things broke down. (And things broke down a lot.) I also had to take care of the yard around our home, and that meant more than just mowing the lawn. It didn’t take me long to realize that nature had first dibs on our property. Insects of every kind wanted to build things on or around our house, especially in the spring, and if I didn’t evict them quickly they would outnumber me. And they were incredibly sneaky. Carpenter bees drilled into our deck. Bagworms infested our pine tree. Nancy was amused at the result of all this: rather than becoming their sworn enemy, I became a lover of insects. I wanted to know all about them. I walked into a swarm of mayflies with a piece of packing tape and tried to capture one, so I could see what it looked like up close. I spent an evening tracking the movements of a firefly, so I could understand what they do all night. (I guess I was naïve about that. I actually caught a couple of them in the act, and then I said, “Ohhh…”)
I also had a den now, stuffed with books that had been in boxes through all of our apartment years. I would just sit in silence, surrounded by those books, and be aware of God, scanning all those subjects and thinking about the diversity of life. And I would simply meditate on the ongoing story of a God who is here with us and with all living creatures. Over time, I began to realize what I had to do: I must now pull together everything I had learned—to write out a kind of masters thesis on the subject to which I had devoted my life. What does God do all day? How is God engaged with us when we’re at work, at school, or at play? How is God engaged with all living things as they go about their business?
It was hard work. I filled up a spiral notebook with tentative answers to those questions, but my thoughts were much too scattered, and I found it difficult to organize them. I met with Belden Lane, professor of theology at Saint Louis University, and he said it sounded like I was trying to do theology. I disagreed. What I was trying to do was secular, all the way down to the roots. At last I admitted the truth: what I was doing was philosophy. “I hate philosophy!” I said. But I took a couple of classes in it and realized it was true. I started talking to people about getting my doctorate in the field of philosophy.
Meanwhile, I took on increased responsibilities at Western Union’s customer service call center. After I had been there three years, I was promoted to Operations Manager, which meant I was now above the people who used to be my supervisors. I was put in charge of the new Preferred Customer Program. I reported to the program specialist at headquarters in New York, wrote a manual, trained customer service reps (CSRs) to take Preferred Customer calls, and answered escalated complaints about the program. I was also a member of a team of Operations Managers who reported to the director of our call center. We took turns manning the command center, where we watched and manipulated the volume of different types of calls. We listened in on phone calls and evaluated CSRs. We rewarded and disciplined CSRs as needed. It was a strange experience for me, as I had never aspired to a position of authority within the company.
When I was offered a teaching assistanceship at Saint Louis University, to work toward my doctorate in philosophy, I hesitated. Although I was surprised to say it, I actually enjoyed being a manager. Was there a way I could do both things? I struggled prayerfully with the issue and finally decided to pursue my doctorate full-time. Western Union threw me a retirement party (I was 35) and presented me with a wonderful Keepsake Telegram, mounted on a plaque:
SO LONG RON JOHNSON OUR PREFERRED CUSTOMER GUY STOP YOU’RE OFF TO HIT THE BOOKS AND WE’LL FOREVER ASK OURSELVES WHY STOP WE’LL MISS YOUR GENTLE MANNER YOUR QUIET WAYS YOUR WIT STOP BUT YOU MUST GO OUT AND FIGURE IF A TREE FALLS DOES ANYONE HEAR IT STOP
And so I left to study philosophy full-time (and teach part-time) at Saint Louis University. I thought I was going to start articulating my philosophy of God in the secular world, but I was so wrong…