Episode 044: Phillip Van Nostrand
Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed are the first things that come to mind when I think of Phillip Van Nostrand. He is earnest and excitable—you can tell within moments of meeting him that he sees the world through rose-colored glasses, always giving others the benefit of the doubt and believing that the world is filled with kind, caring souls. I met Phillip through Instagram, interviewed him for Gutted and then recently we had the chance to connect on a sunny day in San Francisco. He was in California for work and joined me on a midday walk from downtown to my office. Our time together was quick, but it was inherently apparent that some time was better than no time at all.
For the start of our interview conversation, Phillip shares some of his family background. His parents met at a hippie Christian commune in Santa Barbara in the mid-1970s and were married two weeks after they were first introduced. My tendency toward “realistic” expectations gets in the way as Phillip shares this story—I am immediately drawn to know how things hashed out. He jokes and says, “I think they thought that Jesus and good vibes would get them through everything . . . but they are really opposite [in] almost every possible way.” The marriage still lasted for 25 years—far longer than so many relationships.
Phillip’s parents may have introduced him to the Christian religion, but it was really by his own volition that he became active and involved in his local community’s church and congregation. He went to summer camp, attended bible study, and woke up on the weekends for Sunday school. Phillip notes, “It was like the best second family that I could ever have without being in a gang or something. I really had my built-in friends, people to go to dances [with] . . . people to eat lunch with . . . It was like its own private club.”
As Phillip got older, he replicated his best childhood experiences by bringing religion actively into his adult life. He was a youth pastor and regularly worked with kids as a camp counselor. His involvement in religion continued after he graduated from high school and went off to college, shaping much of his belief system and community of support as he stepped into adulthood. Our discussion leads Phillip and I to explore the impact and influence of religion—and how so many of us are looking for a strong leader to put our faith into. Phillip notes,
“I think there’s this idea called authoritarianism where you put your faith in[to] a strong leader. These are people who are strong on the authoritarian scale, really like a traditional male sort of paternal, patriarchal household . . . There’s a strong sense of a leader where you’re giving away your rights or ideas or thoughts or feelings to something like a higher power.”
As someone who believes strongly that each and every one of us have all of the answers that we need inside of ourselves, I am aware of my hesitancy toward organized religions or any infrastructure that has a guru put up on a pedestal. From the outside looking in, it feels as though people give up their inner power to believe in something that may or may not be true for them.
In his twenties, Phillip began to question his commitment toward his faith, as he was taught that religion wasn’t a lukewarm or a passive thing but rather an all-or-nothing approach. He explains,
“[I began to think] I didn’t have enough faith. I didn’t read the bible enough or pray enough or I was like too interested in girls or whatever. And so I started to build in a lot of shame and I think guilt along with my faith. You know, like I saw what I thought was perfection or achievable perfection and I also saw where I was and felt like I was really off.”
“It honestly felt like a battle. And I think that was the verbiage that I used when I finally took a step away from all of that [and] was like I think I’m giving up the fight. It feels weary and also unsustainable to strive this hard for something that’s always going to feel a little bit away from me.”
What Phillip was experiencing during this time in his life was the battle between flesh and spirit—flesh being the many forms of impurity and imperfection that exist by simply being human and spirit being the purest part of oneself. The truth is, there is no such thing as perfection, so striving for it inevitably sets us up for failure and suffering. I ask Phillip if he was able to connect to his own inner knowing or intuition during this period of time in his life. He remembers ignoring his gut instinct over and over again, regularly feeling not good enough and not allowing himself the space to notice that maybe the whole system he was living in was not quite right. He explains, “I felt like I was at war with myself all the time.” Phillip continued to make attempts to align with his faith often at the expense of his own wants, needs, and personal desires. While we are on this topic, he vulnerably shares with me that he didn’t lose his virginity until he was 28 years old. It was around this period of time that Philip decided that he was “giving up the fight. [He didn’t] want to feel guilty anymore.” Although he continued to go to church until he was 32, he allowed himself the space to explore realms of life that felt alive and true for him. He began to reclaim parts of himself that he had never known or never allowed himself to fully own.
It was at this time that Phillip’s father introduced him to the ManKind Project, a nonprofit training and education organization that offers trainings and circle gatherings for men all over the world. The organization puts an emphasis on teaching accountability, integrity, authenticity, and emotional literacy. Two other men (Dave Klaus and Jeremy Redleaf) that I have interviewed for Gutted are active participants in this organization. Phillip explains the shift he had after his first retreat:
“I really felt like I woke up that weekend . . . it sounds so cliché and trite, but I felt like I was asleep my whole life and being there that weekend [allowed] me to [have] the opportunity to confront my father in a way that I’d never been able to do before. [And not] just a guy standing in as my father, but my actual father because he was on the weekend, which nobody gets to do normally. And [I got to] define what it is to be a man for myself . . . and to be in a place without any sort of judgment and take a deep hard look at myself, layers of myself that I had been ashamed of before, was really just a wonderful gift.”
After this first weekend, Phillip continued to actively engage in the program, regularly attending men’s groups and retreats—observing his own being step fully into a higher version of himself in the process. At the end of our time together, I ask Phillip what he would offer to someone listening who may feel like they are involved in an inner war with themselves. He notes,
“I guess I would say talk to a lot of people about [what is going on for you] and not just the people in your direct circle of influence or community. I think that it’s really important that we are all able to be honest with ourselves about what we’re about and if there is a sort of conflict, then to really investigate what’s there.”
Phillip Van Nostrand is based in New York and California. With a strong background in weddings, commercial and lifestyle projects, he is an expert in capturing bright, cinematic lifestyle imagery. He travels abroad once a year and has photographed 30+ countries.
Published in the New York Times, Dwell Magazine, Fortune.com, Fast Company, Huffington Post, Parade Magazine, San Diego Style Weddings, Master Class speaker at WPPI in 2016 and 2017.