The Angst-y Penguin of Happiness

I'll miss you too!

I’ll miss you too!

Today is the first real day of my leave.

The Christmas break is over. My colleagues go back to work and my the students are back in the classroom. I, on the other hand, get to write in my new, comfee lounge pants. My outright obligations are few. As I sit here with my coffee, I should be able to unleash my inner taunting playground “Na, na, na, na, Na, na.” I should be ecstatic that my experiment in semi-retirement is actually underway.

I am not.

I think what I am feeling would be best described as angst. From Wikipedia: “Kierkegaard used the word Angest (in common Danish, angst, meaning “dread” or “anxiety”) to describe a profound and deep-seated spiritual condition of insecurity and fear in the free human being. Where the animal is a slave to its instincts but always conscious in its own actions, Kierkegaard believed that the freedom given to people leaves the human in a constant fear of failing his/her responsibilities to God. [] While Kierkegaard’s feeling of angst is fear of actual responsibility to God, in modern use, angst was broadened by the later existentialists to include general frustration associated with the conflict between actual responsibilities to self, one’s principles, and others (possibly including God).”

Yup. That’s me. Conflicted. On one side of the scale is the joy of following a dream. I am writing full-time. I am off to Antarctica in less than a month. On the other side are feelings of guilt and, if I am being totally honest, shame. It took me almost 50 years, but this “people pleaser” is just now coming to terms with the fact that sometimes, if you make a decision, conflicted feelings are inevitable.

I imagine that the joy side of things is easy for most people to understand, so I won’t dwell on it. Following a dream dressed in lounge pants with few “must do this moment” obligations is pure bliss for me.

The guilt and shame side of the equation is a little harder to explain, even to myself, so please indulge me as I “blog it out.”

I’m not sure where I acquired the distinction (I’m thinking shame researcher Brené Brown?), but I see guilt as being intrinsic – something internal we need to take responsibility for, and shame as something inherently extrinsic – something external, and often imagined, we need to let go of.

In my understanding, true guilt occurs when our actions take us away from the path prescribed by our own moral compass and internal standards. This morning, I still feel guilty because I made children cry. For me, teaching is not about a pay cheque. It is as much about being a trusted guardian for my students as it is about passing on information. In the particular job that I have now, I see my number one job as making Grade 6 students feel safe and happy in a public school setting.

If you could have seen the blubberfest that occurred when I announced I was leaving, you would understand how badly I failed in the “safe and happy” department that day. I am still haunted by the tearful “I’ll miss you” hugs I was still getting a full week later. While gratifying that I obviously made a connection to the students, I need to own the consequences of my actions.

To any students (and parents) reading this who were hurt by my leaving, please accept my sincere apology. I take responsibility for that. Please know that I still care about you and that I am sorry for the sadness I caused.  I hope that you will take some consolation in knowing that I worked hard, as much was in my power, to ensure that the teacher replacing me was someone I know you will love and will expand your horizons in ways I could not. I hope that, when June comes, that you will know that this year was special because you were sincerely cared for by two teachers who wanted to connect with you, make you feel safe, and push you to be the best “you” you can be.

I also need to apologize to the colleagues I inconvenienced. Middle School is all about teamwork and being there for one another. My leaving made more work for several people from administration right on down to custodial staff. To those affected, I want to say a sincere thank you. Your work on my behalf is very appreciated.

Fortunately I know that, for these things I am still feeling some guilt for, I have been forgiven. If I truly internalize the kind words of encouragement I have received from parents, staff and students, I know that it’s OK.

So that just leaves the shame side of things. It’s ugly to admit, but I know I have had moments where my ability to really enjoy my leave has been overshadowed by thoughts of what other people might be thinking; to the extrinsic pressure to conform to other’s ideals. In my case, this is totally imagined and I need to let go of it all.

Everyone has been so supportive and excited for me, and yet I have worried about things like:

  • How are others perceiving the lavishness of it all? Are others thinking I am being irresponsible with my money? That it should be invested in paying down our mortgage? Supporting family members? Helping an organization like Kiva or our church? Ultimately these kind of questions could be asked about everything I spend money on from Starbucks to laptops to cars, but somehow the magnitude of this adventure has brought the tension between doing for self and doing for others into a tight focus. I need to let go of this by internalizing that  the preparations for this trip (thanks to our bank) have actually left us in a much more stable financial position and that ultimately this was a gift… a super wonderful, fabulous, amazing gift… from my loving wife and second guessing that is just rude.
  • How are others perceiving me as a teacher? Are others secretly thinking “he couldn’t hack it” or “what a jerk for bailing on us!” Again, no one has been anything but positive, so looking at the evidence should be enough to stop this part of the shame cycle.
  • Have I messed up my connections? Ironically, I am the poster child for the “those who feel connected also feel able to explore” part of attachment theory. I am in a place in my life where I feel totally blessed by the number and quality of my friends. I am also obviously loved by my wife. So it is a tad ironic that there is worry that the freedom this made possible will create alienation, especially now that I’ll have more time to play with said friends and family after work hours.

Reading over these concerns to myself as I write this, it is obvious that shame is stupid. I need to let go of it. And hopefully, as the week progresses, I will, but this “people-pleaser” is not there just yet.

In the meantime, I need to let some soothing words sink in. Written in the farewell book the students created for me, I found this:

“Following your dreams is only one reason to look up to you.”


All in. It’s time for joy.

What is holding you back from following your dreams? Do you think shame, at least my definition of it, involved? I’d love to read your thoughts. Please leave a comment below.




Greg Tjosvold is a teacher, writer, and innovator. One of the first to crowdsource his biography, he is apparently 12 ft tall, has no body fat, is always polite, and is the only living recipient of an Oscar, Tony, Emmy, Stanley Cup, Pulitzer, and two Nobel prizes (Economics and Break Dancing). He is currently reevaluating the merits of crowdsourcing.

He is the father of two amazing children and currently lives with his wonderful wife in the wilds of suburban Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.