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The call of self

Finding my path when the choices I made in my twenties didn't work out.
By Manish Mishra
Summer 2008 5.15.08

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As a young adult in the 1990s, I was in a rush—a rush to grow up. I saw my peers falling into two broad camps: those who wanted the roles and responsibilities of adulthood as soon as possible, and others who wanted to try out a variety of disparate roles and see how they fit.

From my younger perspective, this latter group was composed of commitment-phobes. “Ah,” I would think, “if only they could get their acts together, they could get an early start in building their 401ks and working their way up corporate ladders.” Unlike them, I wanted my life to have all the pieces in place. I wanted stability and lunged after it with enthusiasm, even abandon. I was naïve and inexperienced, and too clueless to recognize it.

In 1993, just a few weeks after graduating from Georgetown University, I began what I expected to be a lifelong career as a diplomat. At virtually the same time, I entered what I believed would be my one committed, lifelong relationship. At the tender age of twenty-two, I thought I had solved the major life quests—vocation and human connection.

I was professionally successful throughout my twenties. In the span of just eight years, I was honored twice by the U.S. State Department for my accomplishments; I helped set foreign policy goals and priorities; I traveled the world; I hobnobbed with foreign dignitaries. I was a “tenured” diplomat, on the fast track.


My initial exposure to diplomacy was through an uncle who had served as the Indian Ambassador to the United Nations in the 1970s. I remember visiting my uncle and aunt in New York City and being whisked away from the airport by a black limousine. I asked my mom what my uncle did. She said he was an ambassador. I had never heard the word before, and she explained that “an ambassador is someone who makes peace in the world.”

I was sold, hook, line, and sinker.

I knew my parents hoped that their eldest son would go into one of the prestigious, “preapproved” Indian professions—doctor, corporate executive, engineer, computer scientist, or lawyer. I didn’t have the faintest interest in any of those vocations. Because it was also prestigious, a diplomatic career gave me hope that I could do meaningful work and still meet my culture’s expectations.

What I had not tapped into, however, was who I am. I had matched my career with externally driven needs. Those needs began to feel very different from those of my soul, which I had never really thought about.

In reality I hated living overseas, and I hated frequent moves. I was at my core a homebody, in the worst possible vocation for a homebody. An openly gay man, I had dedicated my life’s labor to an employer (the U.S. government) that treats gay and lesbian employees and their families as second-class citizens. I had also been drawn to diplomacy because it seemed that my uncle was making a difference in the lives of others. Years into doing this work, I found such moments to be relatively rare. I was primarily a glorified paper-pusher, not an agent of cross-cultural understanding and peace.

By the late 1990s, I began to realize that I had spent my time in high school, my undergraduate years, and now a significant chunk of my adulthood in pursuit of a career that was a bad fit for me.

At the time, I was attending All Souls Church in Washington, D.C., where the Rev. Terry Sweetser was the interim senior minister. I found myself in the pews, Sunday after Sunday, appreciating what an incredibly positive influence Terry was. I began reflecting on whether this might be the type of role I had always hoped to play—embodying, as a minister, our communal hopes for love, care, and understanding.

At the time, I knew of no Unitarian Universalist ministers of Hindu origin, and I struggled with the idea that ministry is not a “real” profession. Of course it is real, and there are other UU-Hindu ministers, but I fought with the internalized voices of my culture objecting to a nontraditional career, one that was unlikely to hold the keys to wealth, prestige, or privilege.

By this point in time, however, I was so unhappy in my diplomatic career that continuing to listen to the logic of my younger self and my internalized cultural values was no longer feasible. My soul was yearning for a vocation in which my fullest self could gain expression. I had found that path, and it led me towards ministry.


In parallel with this vocational quest was my search for a meaningful life partnership. I had come out of the closet at age twenty and by twenty-two had decided that experience in romantic relationships was not important for making a decision about a life partnership. Having had only two significant dating experiences as an openly gay man, I settled into what was to become my longest adult relationship to-date.

Coming out of a culture with a history of arranged marriages, I had come to believe, mostly subconsciously, that a marriage or partnership could succeed if the two people knew one another, deeply cared for one another, and were mutually committed to the goal of life partnership. If that was true, which I believed it was, why date countless individuals? In the profound wisdom (in reality naiveté) of my young adulthood I had reworked Hindu assumptions about arranged marriage into a palatable, slightly more flexible, gay-friendly format, one that seemed to make sense.

In the summer of 1993, I was soon to be sent overseas on my first diplomatic assignment. I wanted to share my new career with someone special, a partner. I pinned my hopes for companionship, partnership, and marriage on my best friend at the time, also a gay professional. And, at my urging, we decided to try and take this relationship deeper.

We were professionally successful, attractive, supportive of each other’s careers, socially comfortable in each other’s circles, and deeply caring and loving of one another. We communicated well, we matched one another intellectually, and we had fun together.

There was only one problem. I was incapable of fidelity in this relationship. I began cheating on my partner and continued to do so.

The confusion, guilt, and shame became overwhelming. At the age of twenty-six I started psychotherapy, which became the basis for my ongoing practice of self-reflection.

What eventually became clear to me was that my partner and I processed emotions very differently. I was primarily emotional, and he was intellectual. At times, I literally could not understand how his mind worked, and I’m sure the same was true the other way around. I found that I did not really want physical intimacy in a relationship where I felt somewhat alien and misunderstood. And so I sought it elsewhere, in casual relationships, where less was at stake.

After eleven years together, and a legal marriage in the state of Massachusetts, I finally saw that I had repeated the same patterns in my personal life that I had followed in my work life. I had entered a lifelong commitment without adequately understanding who I was or what I needed in order to be fulfilled; I had allowed culture, and my desire for rapid closure to the tasks of adulthood, to define what I needed.

Since my separation and divorce, I’ve had to pick up some of the tasks I left behind in my early twenties—learning how to date, learning what qualities and characteristics I find most meaningful in others, learning who I am alone as well as in a relationship. To my surprise, one of my early discoveries was that I’m capable of monogamy, something I had almost given up on. I discovered that the ability to emotionally connect with another is the glue that makes monogamy not only possible but meaningful for me. This understanding, so elusive in my twenties, now makes perfect sense.

In my thirties I’ve come to appreciate that there isn’t just one way to grow up. Some people were early committers, as I was; others dabbled and experimented. But no matter which route we took, many of us made choices in our twenties that didn’t work out. In the process, most of us learned from these struggles and mistakes, and are now more in touch with ourselves as a result.

I know this has been true for me, and because of it, I wouldn’t change a thing about how my life has unfolded. What I now appreciate is that when it comes to growing up, we will all get there eventually, even if it takes a lifetime.


Reprinted with permission from Wrestling with Adulthood: Unitarian Universalist Men Talk about Growing Up, edited by Ken Beldon (Skinner House Books, 2008).

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