Except from Chapter 5, “The Joy Decision”
Here is my confession.
For many years, I spent more hours than I care to count, probably 80-100 of them a week, at the office—though I should note that my “office” was often random coffee shops and various tables in university libraries. I was trying to get a tenure track job, and then to get tenure, then trying to be promoted to Full Professor, etc. More important, though, than the external achievements being sought was the sense that I had to give everything that I had, and maybe everything I was, in order to be the best philosopher I could be. As I would often say: “I don’t simply teach philosophy, I am a philosopher.” And there’s a difference. One can teach religion without being religious, or politics without being a politician. Similarly, one can hold a Ph.D. in philosophy without actually living into philosophy as a way of life. That said, I worked hard and as a result I accomplished a lot professionally. However, in those early days, it came at the cost of rarely seeing my wife. Sadly, there were many months where we would only see each other one day a week, despite living in the same house, because she was gone before I woke up and I didn’t get home until after she was in bed.
Even though I got into academics in order to go fishing, I very rarely got to the rivers. There was just too much work to do. But one day, eventually, then I will fish a lot . . . or so I told myself.
I thought I could overcome the heavy stress by just working harder and pushing through to meet deadlines, and the more work I got done the better I perceived myself to be—not only at my job, but in my identity. Like Camus’s comment about Sisyphus, I imagined myself happy because I was living into the dream that had motivated me throughout the pressures and exhaustion of graduate school. In many ways, the fact that I was able to do professional philosophy was a huge honor that humbled me on a regular basis. Indeed, I was now friends with the folks I had only previously read. I was now the president of the societies that just a few years earlier awed and intimidated me. I was editing the books and writing the articles that would help shape the field I cared so much about.
Look, I think all of this is important stuff, but then one day my wife and son and I were driving by my university with my parents, who were visiting from out of town, and my son, who was probably about 3 or 4 at the time, said “Grandma, look, that is Furman. That is where dad lives.”
I was wrecked.
He was right.
That was where I lived. I had made my career more important than my family even though the entire time I told myself that I was putting in the hours in order to provide a better future for my family. But in believing this narrative and then making choices about my time that served to enact its truth, I was confusing the non-ultimate decision of time management with the ultimate decision of directional love. In other words, because I couldn’t do everything, I was trying to do one thing really, really well. Unfortunately, the “one thing” ended up not being caring about my identity as a husband and father, but caring about my identity as an academic. This doesn’t mean that I didn’t love my family, but simply that I was willing to love them less than something else, while telling myself I was doing the opposite.
Such is the nature of self-deception. I was effectively “obeying” the call of the office more than the “call” of my son. In this respect, my “love” was tearing me apart even before I realized that I was directionally misguided.
As is often the case in our lives, even when we “know” something, we often lack the courage, the will, or the integrity to reflect that knowledge in our practices. For one thing, being honest with ourselves in such ways that can be hard work. So, as much as I wish that I could report that after that fateful day in the truck passing Furman I did things differently, I simply did not. I just felt guilty while continuing with the same old stuff. Although habits take some time to develop, they usually take even more time to break.
A couple years later, I was walking down the street in the city where I live and I had my son’s hand in mine. He was probably 6 or 7 by this point, and out of the blue he said, “Dad, I don’t want to be a philosopher when I grow up.” To which I responded, with exaggerated bodily expressions, “What? Philosophers are the coolest!!!!” He then simply said, “No, dad, philosophers don’t spend enough time with their kids.”
Let that sink in. It did for me, instantly.
Praise for Camping with Kierkegaard
“Time with Simmons is well-spent. We see plainly what Kierkegaard taught us: how to take our lives seriously.”
—Aaron James, Philosopher, Surfer, Author of Assholes and Surfing with Sartre
“Bringing together personal stories, reflections from Kierkegaard and other philosophers, and occasional references to popular culture, Aaron Simmons asks what it is to live a faithful (although not necessarily religious) life. Inviting us along as he camps, bikes, and hikes, the answers he provides on this journey—at once open and urgent—prompt us to consider our own lives with the seriousness they deserve.”
—Todd May, Philosopher, Activist, Author of Death and A Significant Life
“This Thoreau-like reflection could be called ‘Mountain Biking with Kierkegaard.’ If you take the ride and you should, you will imbibe lessons like the connection between avoiding trees on your mountain bike and avoiding becoming a crowd person. Some of the deepest philosophical probes are on humility, hospitality, and gratitude, but all the philosophical points are artfully connected with embodied experience.”
—Gordon Marino, Philosopher, Boxer, Author of The Existentialist’s Survival Guide
“What is worthy of my finitude? There’s a term mountain bikers use: dropping in. It means you’re entering a steep, technical trail. It’s time to trust your training, conditioning, and preparation. Everything contracts to muscle memory, instinct, and awareness—pure presence in the moment. But only if you commit, really commit. J. Aaron Simmons calls us to live like that. Do the work of inquiry and examination, ask the hard questions, but not as an intellectual exercise or as careerists. Instead, he would have us undertake the care of the self in order to commit and be present in our finitude: to know the love of family and friends, the beauty of nature, and the presence of the transcendent.The mountains are calling and I must go, runs the saying. Well, your life is calling and you must go. Take this book with you for the journey.”
—Travis E. Ables, Theologian, Mountain Biker and Bikepacker
“Aaron Simmons treats his readers to a lively discussion of philosophical heavyweights, contemporary music, personal recollections and hard-won wisdom, all the while guiding and goading us to think about how we live our lives. Quick-witted, endlessly inventive and invigorating, Simmons sets a brisk pace in a text that is at once an excellent introduction to philosophical discourse, a free-wheeling chronicle of a scholar’s life, and a model of effective teaching, with fresh takes on the contributions of thinkers from Aristotle to Nietzsche, from Judith Butler to Jean Chrétien. Most remarkable, perhaps, is Simmons’s disarming gift for alternating between light-hearted banter, pointed social critique and earnest Kierkegaardian exhortation. A trip to the mountains imminently worth taking.”
—Vanessa Rumble, Philosopher, Hiker
About the Author
J. Aaron Simmons is a Professor of Philosophy, a widely published author, a popular speaker, and also a trout fisherman and mountain biker. Specializing in philosophy of religion and political philosophy, Simmons is the former President of the Søren Kierkegaard Society (USA). Simmons is an active public philosopher and hosts the YouTube channel, Philosophy for Where We Find Ourselves.