Corbett: Who Am I Becoming?

Who Am I Becoming?

Bob Corbett

written in June 1999

If you click here you wil go to an addendum I posted in May 2010

It is difficult to say who I am. I tend to be a philosopher who doesn't think we "are," but are "becoming." Nonetheless I have done certain things and follow certain fairly regular patterns of living, doing so at times for long periods of my life. Certainly in the everyday sense of language, those things are who I am. But even there, I experience contradictions, like virtually every one else. I "am" this Bob Corbett for some period of time, but only mainly so, and at times I don't live and act that particular Bob Corbett. At other times I am in transition between an "old" Bob Corbett and a "new" Bob Corbett in some regard.

Thus, with some fear and trepidation of being misunderstood as too fixed, below is a bit of who I have been (mainly), and what directions and tendencies I'm traveling in as I continue to create the Bob Corbett who will only really BE Bob Corbett after I am no longer he! This portrait is highly censored for this public medium. I have fuller details. Some I edit out as less essential. Others I edit out as too private (perhaps too unflattering). Thus a certain falseness creeps in.

I am a native St. Louisan, of Irish ancestry. I was raised a Roman Catholic, attended Catholic elementary and secondary school, entered the seminary and spent my undergraduate days studying to be a priest. In 1961 I left the seminary, and shortly there after left the Roman Catholic Church and religion in general. Since about 1963-64 I have been a practicing atheist. What is a practicing atheist? One who lives and acts as though there were no God. The concept of a supreme being of any kind doesn't enter into my life one iota. I am not, however, one of those folks who left a conservative Roman Catholicism with anger or bad feelings. I loved those days and was enamored of ceremony and the sense of community. I even regret the loss. My change of being was not out of a sense of disappointment or resentment. Rather, I just discovered I didn't believe that a God exists, and I wasn't interested in the loss of individual liberty that would follow from a hierarchical structure in which I no longer believed. Added May 2010: Nor since the early 1960s have I belived in the concept of an afterlife.

I married in 1962 and my wife and I moved to the Bahama Islands where we taught in a small school as volunteer service work for the Roman Catholic bishop of the Bahamas. We had met taking the Peace Corps exam the very first time it was ever given in St. Louis in 1961. Our first two (of 7) children were born during our stay in the Bahamas.

In 1964 we returned to the U.S. to St. John's University in Collegeville, Minnesota where I taught for one year before coming to Webster University in St. Louis, Missouri in 1965.

We had sons born in 1963-64-65-66. Then daughters born in 1967 and 1970, and our youngest child, now 23, born in 1975. Raising the children was one of the most exciting, challenging and delightful tasks of my whole life.

In 1972-73 I took a sabbatical leave from Webster University and went to Austria to learn German and to study German philosophy, especially the work of Martin Heidegger, one of my favorite philosophers. I spent 13 fabulous months in Graz, Austria. Graz is a beautiful small city of about 250,000 people. It is the second largest city in Austria, after Vienna, but is not well known to Americans. It is a southern Austrian city, just near the Slovenian border. The much smaller tourist towns of Salzburg and Innsbruck are known to Americans. That year's experience began a life-long love affair with Austria, and I've been back there many times to teach.

Not only did the 1972 trip make me fall in love with Austria, but with all of Europe. I have traveled many times to Europe and traveled widely in Europe, especially enjoying trips to Budapest and Prague in Eastern Europe and one long trip to Warsaw with my younger daughter in 1989. Another of my very favorite cities is Paris, where I've been several times, including visits in two Decembers of recent years. Recently I made my first trips to Greece and Great Britain, enjoying both of them a great deal.

In the summer of 1983 I had a spectacular chance to spend most of the summer in the Arabian Peninsula as guest of some of Webster University's Arabian students. I visited Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia among other interesting places, but never fell in love with the Middle East the way I have with other places.

Perhaps one of the most significant developments of my life also came in 1983 when I made my first visit to the country of Haiti. I went there to do some service work and fell completely in love with the country. Since then I have visited Haiti some 40 times, run a small program of development projects there, have founded my own private charity to house my work in Haiti and have spent a huge portion of my scholarly time in devotion to the study of Haiti. From 1984 to 1994 I published a magazine on things Haitian, and then in 1994 moved the whole scholarly work I do on Haiti to the internet where I run the most active mailing list or, for that matter, most active place of ANY sort on Haiti which is on the internet. I would certainly invite any of you to join that mailing list and see what goes on. But, by way of warning, you would be inundated with lots of mail, since I really post a lot of material to the mailing list of nearly 800 people, as many as 20 to 30 e-mails on a typical day.

One of the works I had been doing in Haiti since 1983 was taking groups of volunteer workers to Haiti to do service work and to experience this 3rd world country. However, in January 1994 we experienced a terrible tragedy and two of our volunteer workers, two young women from St. Louis, were killed in a bus accident. After that accident I cancelled the work trips to Haiti. The trips had great value, but I just wasn't up to that task any longer.

As I mentioned earlier, I founded a charity. It is called PEOPLE TO PEOPLE, INC. The main work is in Haiti, but it does have some smaller projects here in St. Louis with shelters and feeding centers. This is an all-volunteer charity and no one receives a salary to work in it. Since I am the president and far and away the most active volunteer, I needed more time in volunteer service. Thus, 10 years ago, when many of my children were raised and basically on their own, my wife and I decided that we would easily live on 1/2 my salary, so I gave up my tenured position for a 1/2 time position to free up more time for my volunteer service work. Much of my life had been lived in a modestly serious form of voluntary economic simplicity, but this choice changed that to a rather forced simplicity.

A different me had been slowly emerging in those years of parenting. It was probably there to be seen in the period, but I either never paid attention or just blocked it out. The upshot was a separation and divorce.

I moved back into Dogtown, the neighborhood of central west St. Louis where I was born and raised. I had lived here from my birth in 1939 until I was married in 1962. At this time in 1993 both my parents were ailing and in their last days. They lived here in Dogtown, and I wanted to be close to them. My mom died in 1993 and my dad in April of 1994. In 1995, at the support of my two younger brothers, I moved into my parents' home, along with my significant other. My oldest son eventually purchased the house and rented to my partner and me so I have a son as a landlord and it's working out well.

Now I spend my time running PEOPLE TO PEOPLE, INC., especially the enormous amount of time I spend on the internet doing education work about Haiti, teaching my classes at Webster University, reading more than ever before in my life, building a massive library on Haiti, enjoying my children and 11 grandchildren, rediscovering the neighborhood of my childhood, and developing my relationship with my new life partner. It's simply a great life.

I am FANTASTICALLY excited about teaching on the internet. I see this as the beginnings of a whole new direction of my life, and I will be working hard to learn how to use this tool to the best of my ability to enrich the experience of learning for my students. I try to offer at least one course on-line each semester and have been working lately to build up material for my new web page.

I am also interested in how educators can use the internet to offer free learning services to those who are interested (like the visitors to my courses). In the 1960s I worked with the free university movement, but it didn't come to much. This new technology has the opportunity to succeed where the free university movement failed. I want to be right in the thick of it!

I have been teaching philosophy at Webster University since 1965, so I have just finished my 34th year. This makes me about the second or third longest-term faculty members at the institution. I am semi-retired, having taken early 1/2-time retirement 10 years ago at the age of 50. Webster University has been a wonderful place to work, being incredibly supportive of whatever ideas or innovations I have wanted to make in teaching, curriculum and other ideas. It's simply a marvelous place to work.

As I said as the outset, I see my life as one of constant becoming and each present period as one of contradictions such that I AM not anything or anyone, but a person creating himself. Nonetheless, I do look back on my sixty years of living and see what I think are four different periods of my life where the period can be given a brief description.

From my birth until high school I lived the rather traditional life of a third generation child of an Irish Catholic immigrant family. We were working class, living in a sort of Irish ghetto in a home of genuine love, harmony, fun and support. We never had a great deal materially, and my parents didn't even own a car until after I was in high school, but we never wanted for any basic material things and the home and extended family were filled with love and support.

My high school and college days were times of transition from an innocent, naïve and unquestioning childhood into a skeptical, self-directed adulthood. Awesome and scary times.

The period of my marriage and raising a family, a period of 31 years, were days of growth and dedication to several things at once:

At the same time there was my work at Webster University with special interests in Existential philosophy, philosophy for children and other areas of philosophy in practice.

Lastly, in this relatively new period of my life, I have turned more inward and less outward in every sense. I read more, think more, stay home more, though I have world connections daily via the internet. I see this as forward looking toward the 21st century. I am connected and active in a new kind of world. It is different from our historical models, and not well understood by me (or others for that matter). Yet it's exciting, engaging and meaningful. It's a place where I think I can make contributions as it creates me anew in the process.

Each of these periods of my life has shaped me. But not one of them "is" me. I'm all of them and my unknown future as well. Even inside any one of these periods I am also the contradictions to the main trends, and the smaller sidelines I leave out of the description.

It is fascinating meeting people who knew or know me mainly via ONE of these periods. For them I AM that Bob Corbett. When the Bob Corbett they know is mainly from one of the first three, they seem to hardly know me. Those who know me mainly in my current way to be in the world often don't know me in my earlier worlds and miss how essential those phases still are to who I am becoming.

I think similar patterns exist for each of us and others have to choose how much time, effort, energy and openness they're willing to invest in any given other. The easy way out is to fix the other as some objective defined person. But a story like mine, of fairly dramatic changes over time and important contradictions within any given period, is more the rule than the exception. I am and we all are people in the making. I often wonder who I will be ten or twenty years from now, if I even am. I so very much hope to be around to find out.

Addendum from May 2010

It has been 11 years since I wrote the above, and perhaps some of the most dramatic life changes – my continued “becoming” -- have occurred in those 11 years. One huge development is that I retired at the end of 2000, though I then went back to Vienna, Austria for the year of 2001 for a last “guest professor” appearance there. However, by January 1, 2002 I was fully retired, with fewer obligations on my time since I started kindergarten in 1944!!!

I controlled my own time fully. What was I to do and how to do it? In these past years I have drifted into a simply wonderful life, rich in meaning and joy. I loved my 36 years of teaching at the university and often thought it had to be the best way in the world to earn one’s living; perhaps, for me, it was. However, an even more rich and rewarding life has come to me in retirement where I do whatever it is I want with extremely few pressures on me to do the bidding of others. I really love it.

Additionally, as I moved back to the United States in 2002 my partner and I decided to end our relationship of 9 years and for the first time in my entire life I was living alone! I had gone from living with my parents on a Saturday morning in 1962 to living with my new wife that same day, then from my marriage to living with my new partner in 1993 on the same day. Now I was alone for the first time ever. That was quite a new and different experience.

While no longer teaching or in any way employed for payment, I still worked. I had already been active in doing Dogtown history, in doing volunteer work in the country of Haiti and doing a great deal of work on my web page on Haiti. I had recently begun my larger webpage and had fallen into the pattern of posting four or more book reviews each month, something I continue to this day. These activities kept me busy, and in February of 2002 I called a meeting to try to found a Dogtown Historical Society. Today the society is 8 years old and thriving. My younger brother is the president and I am the archivist and frequent contributor to new bits and pieces of Dogtown history work.

Ironically, I may well be working as much now without pay as when I worked for pay. The difference is that now I work at my own work, at my own pace (which is often accelerated) and for my own development.

When those meetings began to found the historical society, a woman came to the meetings who had never lived in Dogtown, but whose father had and whose grandparents lived here. She was doing family history work and thought that belonging to the society would advance her history work. It has done that, but in addition we have become partners since about 2004 or 2005 and our life is a happy one, simple but rich in activities, good conversation and friendship.

For a while we travelled a good deal in Europe and descriptions of those trips may be found in my travel writings. Now, we tend to think our travelling days are over. We saw lots, loved it, learned a lot, advanced our relationship in those years of travel, but now we are relative home bodies, no longer travelling abroad, and not even going out much at all. We are happy and comfortable at home.

In 2005 my former wife and I turned over our organization, People to People, Inc. to a new board of directors. Each of us continues to work in or for Haiti in our own way, but we weren’t using the organization much, so we thought it best to give the organization new life, and the new board has done that.

I have not been back to Haiti since 2004. My primary reasons for going into the country were two fold: to run a series of small development projects mainly in the rural areas and to lead group trips to Haiti for people to experience the country. In 1995 a terrible bus accident caused the life of two people who were in Haiti on one of our trips, and after that I just didn’t have it in me to lead those trips. And by 2004 I had had two new knees put in to my weary legs and the strenuousness of travelling to the country side to oversee projects was more than I could handle.

However, I have not ceased my interest in or work with Haiti. I continue to run a daily e-mail discussion forum on Haiti that has grown enormously, and my web page remains one of the largest existing pages on all sorts of Haitian topics.

A little over a year ago I had some serious renovation work and an addition put on to my home, which is the home my parents built when I was a child, and added a large front porch. I also have taken up cooking in a serious manner, so my partner and I eat in almost always, me cooking and she doing the kitchen cleaning, and we eat as many meals as weather permits on the new front porch, enjoying the meals and hours of conversation and visiting with passers-by.

Perhaps the major change in my “becoming” in this period of time has my sort of bowing out of work in the area of politics and public policy. As I had mentioned in my early essay from the time I was very young I was active in social and political movements. Since I am on the far political left, I was interested in movements for the improvement of social conditions for people of color, for women and for better treatment of the needy of our land and the world. I tended to be opposed to much of U.S. foregin policy in my life, other than aid to others in time of natural disasters. It has seemed to me that much of U.S. foreign policy is in defense of a system of capitalism which most serves the interests of the rich and powerful and not the mass of others on our planet and even those of us in the U.S. not in that political and economic elite.

However, I am no longer much active in those areas. In part I’ve just worn out, in part I’m a good deal discouraged by the current strong turn to the political right of our nation, in part I just think it is time that younger people step up to carry the burden of such movements. None of those are really very good reasons for opting out of a more active life of social responsibility, but I think it is an honest assessment of who I am becoming at this time.

Actually, despite the two new knees, and a mild stroke ten years ago, I am in very good health. A few years ago I was just moved to radically change my diet and exercising habits. I started my cooking, with emphasis on extremely healthy (but tasty) foods, buying from farmer’s markets and even growing some things. I walk a great deal, trying to do 4 to 5 miles a day as many days as I can. I don’t drive or own a car, so I have a little wire four-wheel cart and have grocery stores in two different directions from my home, each about a 2 mile one-way walk. Many of my walks are shopping expeditions for food. I live only four blocks from the huge St. Louis city park, Forest Park. I walk there often. One of my favorite sorts of walks is to take off from my home, walk some three-four mile route to a metro station and then spend a few hours riding the metro and buses in St. Louis while I read my current book. I enjoy the walking, the reading and busing around to different areas of St. Louis. Anytime I’m ready, I just hop off the bus, walk around whatever neighborhood I’m in and then catch the next bus coming along.

In sum, the process of becoming continues. I am 71 but still changing and choosing my own life. In fact the Bob Corbett of today is much more different from the Bob Corbett of ten years ago than at any ten year period of my life since I was a child. On the other hand, I sort of tend to think I’m settling into a limited pattern, but I might well have thought that back in 1999 when I posted the first piece of this story of the journey of my becoming. I have a fairly good idea of where and who I’ve been, and a comfortable notion to continue in the path of my current “becoming,” but I’m just not a finished product. The future beckons and I will struggle with it as best I can, hoping that I can be in charge; that I will choose my becoming and not just sit back and let circumstances or habit dictate.

For me my “becoming” should be as much as possible my own project. Of course I don’t control all the variables. Much about my health, especially as I age, will be beyond my control. The economy will have an impact on me, much of that will be out of my control (though having lived virtually my entire life without a cent of debt has been a great advantage). The “mood” of the country will impact me; and these current times just horrify and even frighten me with the nation’s move to the political right and the nasty tone of political discourse. The continued societal attack on the planet earth is much beyond my control as well.

Nonetheless, I will have my own responsibility and choices. I am extremely privileged to have as much control over my continuing journey as I do. I hope I will continue to find the courage to live my life as I wish to and want to, as much as I can within the limits of my power.

Regardless, as long as I live, I will continue to BECOME. The issue will be how much of that becoming will I have the courage and power to take control of consciously and thoughtfully, and how much of that becoming will just come to me from outside forces. It will be my struggle and hope that I can remain as much as possible at the center of my own becoming.

For sure my life is not one of all work and no play, and one of my more relaxing and enjoyable activities of pure pleasure is watching my backyard birds, and the birds over in near-by Forest Park. I have about 8-9 feeding stations in my back yard and have breakfast most mornings in front of a large picture window looking out over the back. I even keep records and normally have between 15-20 different bird types each day. My partner is a very fine photographer and has recorded many of our birds for others to see.

Lastly, I would describe the nature of my own view of life as an “existentialist” position. In my teaching years existentialism was my primary area of focus, study and teaching. Now, after some time away from the university, I am returning more and more to those ideas and texts, and have been putting down into print, as much for my self and my history as any other reason, my views about living life as an existentialist. Some of that material may be found here on my web page as well.

It is a much different Bob Corbett who has typed these notes in 2010 from the Bob Corbett who wrote the piece above in 1999. I would be satisfied to continue in this 2010 mode for years to come, but the way things go, the projection of age and health among them, my own restless and seeking nature, the freedom available to me . . . well I wouldn’t be surprised if yet another chapter of this journey of becoming may not be appended some time in the future. But for now, it is the task of getting on with today; with the journey I’m on, loving it, hanging on vigorously.

Bob Corbett

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