Joshua Keel

34 Years of Change

March 29, 2020

Last week I celebrated my 34th birthday. Oddly, I feel older, as if I should be on the back side of my 30s instead of the front. My friend Jeff always said that you don’t really figure life out until your 30s.

Your 20s just suck. You’re confused; you’re stupid; you face round after round of inner tumult, seemingly without end. Then, blessedly, when you hit 30, you emerge into a calmer, peaceful world, where your psyche has matured enough to settle down for two seconds and be less like a wild-ass donkey.

It’s an idyllic picture, and Jeff delivered it with both seriousness and humor. I do believe youth, in the human animal, is greatly overrated. In youth we find our worst tendencies are allowed to dominate our experience, unrecognized.

The amount of self-inflicted suffering I endured in my 20s is incalculable. I was a wretched person a great deal of the time, and often treated others wretchedly as a consequence.

I am amazed I escaped with less permanent damage, although it is clear to me now that there has always been an undercurrent of goodness and moral concern in my head and heart. I believe those feelings have led me to a better place than I inhabited a decade ago.

The one striking thing about my life is how much has changed over the years. I started off around age eight as a very God-fearing child. I was afraid of Hell, and my parents prayed with me as I asked Jesus into my heart.

He stayed there for many years, but left me some time in my early 20s; left me to rot in my sin and shame; left me to find my own way in this world of woe. (I say all of this with a hint of a smile.)

I was so sensitive to my own depravity in my teens and early 20s that I would pray, over and over again, for God’s forgiveness. My neural circuitry was wired for self-loathing and grief at my own foolishness. I was a picture of abject prostration before a holy God who I desperately wanted to please, but couldn’t.

I think Jesus must’ve grown weary of my constant penitence. That’s why I say he left. The light went out, sometime after my deplorable college experience at Bob Jones University, where my very soul was hollowed out, and I became a shell of my former self.

I no longer cared much for God after college. Or at least, I began to care more about worldly things, as they say. Much of my music and media consumption was secular, and I started (thoughtlessly) exposing myself to more liberal strains of Christian thought.

By age 26 I had become a full-blown atheist. I had experienced an inner revolution. I was saved, as it were, by science and Christopher Hitchens.

Soon after, I began dating for the first time in my adult life. A few dates in, I met E., and it was love almost at first sight. I fell hard and fast for her, but our ill-fated two and a half week almost-romance was shattered as quickly as it began. In a bizarre set of circumstances, I ended it, but I was left badly hurt by the experience.

I had no clue what I was doing. I had all the relational maturity of a virginal teenager, yet I was dating a 28-year-old woman. If it wasn’t so tragic and so seemingly life-and-death at the time, it would have been funny.

Thankfully, I changed again. I grew in my romantic skill, and though I’m no relationship expert still, I managed to find a lovely, intelligent woman who agreed to marry me.

It’s been quite a wild ride, these 34 years. I am not who I was at age 15, or 25, or even 30. I’ve stabilized in a way I didn’t know was possible. I’ve developed into someone I can respect, which may be my most important metric for life success. To be a man of virtue, and to live my life skillfully, is all I can really ask for.

Of course, more change is yet to come. I don’t expect to be quite the man I am today (in fact, I certainly hope not!) at age 40 or 50. I hope to be better; more capable; more mature; to give more joy to the people around me and bring more goodness into the world.

For all your sakes, I hope I succeed.