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Can’t Get No Satisfaction

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This July, the Boston Globe ran a startling story that said 64 percent of all students entering mortuary college today are over 30, rather than 23, which they were a generation ago. (“Frequently, these students want to emulate a wonderful job that a funeral professional did for them,” Lyn Prendergast, executive vice-president of Fine Mortuary College, told the Globe. “Or they had a poor experience and feel they can do a far better job for the bereaved.”) Of the 75 law firms surveyed in New York in The American Lawyer’s recent survey of mid-level associates, the firms ranked No. 1 (Dickstein Shapiro) and No. 3 (Patterson Belknap) had one thing in common: They both received perfect scores on their attitudes toward pro bono work.

I phone Barbara G. Wheeler, the president of Auburn Theological Seminary. She tells me that the average age of female students entering divinity school is 37.

Thirty-seven. My age exactly. If only I weren’t a Jew and an atheist, I’d be in business.

“Every seminary can introduce you to at least some students who’ve been lawyers, journalists, opera singers,” she says. “They have a lot of tolerance for the little annoyances of the job, because they want to deal with life-and-death issues—the moments when people tend to be most human, as Bill Coffin said.”

Lindley DeGarmo, the pastor and head of staff at Towson Presbyterian Church in Maryland, harbored such desires. It was Wheeler who put me in touch with him. DeGarmo enrolled at Union Theological Seminary in 1996, when he was 42 years old. He sometimes jokes that the decision cost him, conservatively speaking, $6 million, because he missed the peak of the boom. At the time, he was pulling in nearly a million dollars annually on Wall Street and living in a 3,000-square-foot apartment in Brooklyn Heights. “Maybe I’d have done more good if I’d worked for a few more years and then given the seminary the money,” he says. Though perhaps it’s just as well. Just before entering the seminary, DeGarmo was considering a job with an intriguing company called Enron.

DeGarmo says he can’t isolate the moment that he knew his job wasn’t for him. “I’ve never been able to make the direct correlation: Hmm, I’m here on Monday morning, and I don’t like the values—wouldn’t it be nice to minister?” he says. “But when I fantasized about what I wanted to do, it was this.” Particularly after he reached 40 and finally married. He started devouring theological texts. He started attending church in New York, where for the first time he “encountered really good preaching, exegesis, grappling with the larger tradition of the church.” Then came the moment, just after his child was born, when he was sitting in a lonely hotel on a fruitless business trip. He had absolutely no clue what he was doing there.

“There are times when this is much more difficult work than what I dealt with as an investment banker,” he says. “It draws on a whole lot more parts of you. You get personally invested. I did 27 funerals last year. It can be draining. But by and large, the joys outweigh the sorrows.

“In seminary,” he suddenly says, “I did a bit of depth psychology.” DeGarmo had never studied it before. He was assigned Memories, Dreams, Reflections, and found himself beguiled by Carl Jung’s theories about the opposing parts of our personalities. “I remember Jung saying that the general trajectory of your life is to work to your strength in your younger life, going great guns to establish yourself at whatever you’re doing,” he continues. “But at some point in midlife, the other part of your personality—the feminine instead of masculine, or whatever other opposing trait—is looking for expression. And if you don’t allow it to express itself, you’re not, in effect, going to become a whole person. Brittle is the word he uses.”

He’s recalling this so fondly and so lyrically that I find myself caught in his same reverie. It’s hard to imagine this man was once a guy in a Town Car on Wall Street.

“So it occurs to me that maybe people who are burning out are bumping up against that phenomenon that Jung talks about,” concludes DeGarmo. “The masculine bumping up against the feminine, or the right brain against the left. Whoever you are.”

It’s a lovely sentiment, almost fit for a sermon. The question now is how many Wall Streeters he can convert.


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