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April 02, 2009



As near as I can tell, you had nothing to do with the collapsing economy and minimal control over the president's identity or policies. Essentially, you're guilty of misfortune in timing. Yes, networking and the like are necessary ingredients, but neither are they necessarily straightforward products of will and perseverance. Though I have no reason to believe you have the same condition, two people I know intimately have moderate to severe social anxiety disorder, making it, amongst other things, incredibly difficult for them to make and maintain contacts, calibrate their understanding of other peoples' opinions of them, and so on. I have experienced attenuated versions of the same when I've found myself in a micro-cultural milieu to which I was temperamentally unsuited, and in many cases only good fortune allowed me to escape or avoid those situations. There's a place for raw effort in such things, but neither is it a magic bullet, especially if one doesn't have a particular talent.

So, I utterly fail to see how your economic situation could fairly be described as shameful, as I see nothing to which should accrue such censure. I can't judge a person's marriage - nor should I - but despite our frequently opposite moral approach, I have a difficult time ascribing to you the sins that are most truly shameful in *my* pantheon.

Joyless Moralist

I hate to be the one to comfort you with, "Oh, don't worry, there are people MUCH more messed up than you..." but really, as mistakes in life go, yours are not so shameful. A lot of the things you mention (e.g. the state of the economy) are not your fault at all. In some of the others, you might be partially responsible, but life is just like that -- we do our best, and sometimes decide in retrospect that some of our choices could have been better. (But we also might, in some cases, make those judgments prematurely. For example, a year or two ago my husband wasn't feeling too good about his decision to go to philosophy grad school... but now that he actually has found a faculty position that he really likes, that decision doesn't seem so bad anymore. It's hard to know how things will work out in the long run.)

In your case, things may not seem great right now, but I don't think you've made the kind of mistakes that really do haunt and shame people for the rest of their lives. I know you have some pretty substantial debts, but financial debts are the kind that can be repaid, even if it takes awhile. How do you repay a person if you've killed a member of their family when you were driving under the influence? Or raped them when you were kind of out of it after a party? How do you repay your children after you destroyed your marriage by cheating on your spouse?

I could go on, but I think you get the idea. The really hard mistakes to live down are the ones that do serious harm to other people, of a kind that can't ever be fixed. You've never done anything like that. I've always known you to be generous and compassionate. You're not callous or cruel, and you take seriously your responsibilities towards others. You always do what you can to take care of people who are important to you. Your financial problems aren't even a result of serious extravagance (gambling or drinking or whatever) so much as some bad breaks and, as you say, the fact that it's just tough to find your way in such a complicated world. And as for your marriage, those situations are always complex, but I think it's important to remember that you never abandoned your wife -- she was the one unwilling to work things out. In short, so far as I know (and I think I know you pretty well) there is no person in this world who has reason to seriously resent you or wish that you didn't exist. Whereas there are a great many people who are very glad indeed to have been fortunate enough to know you. Not everyone can say that, and in the long run, I think that's much more important than the kinds of problems you're dealing with, as difficult and stressful as those may be.


Many people have student debt--perhaps most people who earn a high level of education. Acquiring debt for education is not stupid, though honestly, I do fault Harvard for not using some of their enormous (and gargantuan when you went there) endowment to help young people avoid such debt. Nevertheless, I happen to know that you are a great guy who has done nothing more shameful than fall for the wrong person. I think that has happened a few times before. I understand how you feel, but I also think that, much as we would never choose our trials, they make us better people in the long run. Or can rightly used. There is no question in my mind that you will do well in life--find a good job, pay off your debt, find the right person to marry, have some children and all the rest. I know this is a discouraging time, but you began your post with saying how your faith had helped you feel better, which shows you are on the right track.

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