Two pieces of news arrived today. The first, the one I’m focusing on, is that that position that I mentioned a while ago has been filled. You know, the one I was not all that excited about at first but then spent six weeks convincing myself that it would be perfect and that I would be perfect at it and that it would solve all of my problems. And I didn’t even get an interview. Sigh. The second is that my dissertation advisor just sent me an email saying that she finished reading my diss, she has some minor suggestions for revision, and that she’s happy to sign off on it tomorrow. After I found out about the job, I called the Flying Buttress and cried about how tired I was of feeling so much dread and that I really just needed one little piece of good news. So, I think my request was answered. Even though I have ambivalent feelings about finishing my diss, I will accept this as a piece of good news.
But it’s not a job. Not that I’m expecting someone to call me and offer me a job out of the blue (though that did happen to a friend, recently). But I’m realizing through this process how much my self-worth is based in someone paying me with money to do something that they have deemed valuable. I’m doing this teacher training at my yoga studio. And we do a lot of personal reflection, and I am always forced to realize, sometimes against my wishes, that things are going pretty well for me. I have a sort of unbelievably awesome relationship, and I would like for that to not be a long distance relationship, but it won’t be forever, and for now the miracles of skype and unlimited text messaging are making it pretty easy to be apart and still support each other. I have a dog who I love more than is probably reasonable. Yoga saves me every day. And though I am unemployed after spending 8 years earning $16K/year, I don’t have any immediate financial worries.*
So, all those things being true, why does this news feel so devastating? Why do I so frequently feel this way? Pema Chödrön’s book When Things Fall Apart arrived in the mail today (another piece of good news?). I ordered hoping that it would help me get a handle on the panic, fear and sadness that are taking over lately. She talks about chaos and fear being useful, that they allow for all of our old habits to be shattered, and new ways of thinking and being to form. She describes her own experience in such a time: “All the ways I shield myself, all the ways I delude myself, all the ways I maintain my well-polished self-image – all of it fell apart” (6). This language of shields especially struck me. I know that academia has been a shield for me. I know because every summer for the last eight years, instead of being excited to have time off from teaching, and space to structure my own days, I’ve panicked. For about two weeks I’ve become an emotional wreck because everything that I depend on to maintain my idea of myself falls away and I can’t imagine another existence. So let me get really honest here for a sec about what academia has shielded me from.
Academia has been a shield for this queer girl who grew up in a straight family and a straight world, who has done very few things “right.” Academia gives me something to master, something impressive, and something that not everyone has access to. If I could get an academic career off the ground (as a professional queer, no less), then I might just feel like I’ve proved everyone wrong about all the mistakes or missteps they think I’ve made.
Academia is a shield for this girl who is shy and has some self-esteem issues. Academia gives me something to talk about (with other academics, only, but it’s a start) and a way to be interesting, and to present myself in public without actually having to expose much about myself personally.
Academia is a shield for this girl who is so worried about not being a good enough friend, sister, aunt, daughter, partner – who is scared of letting people down. When I inevitably forget birthdays, or neglect phone calls, Academia is a pretty excellent excuse.
Academia is a shield for this girl who is kind of scared of her feelings, and how intense they can be. Working at a breakneck pace 6-7 days a week is a pretty good way of avoiding those.
There are more, I’m sure. But those are some big ones. And I think the force of the disappointment that I feel when I get rejected from a job has to do with wanting to keep this shield up – to replace academia with some other job, any other job, whether I actually want it or not. But, whether I’m employed or not, I really really want to not run from this fear. I want to see its usefulness, and see if it will get me to a new way of thinking about myself and a new world of opportunities, career and otherwise. Wait, maybe “want” is the wrong word. What I want is for everything to be great and to never feel scared or aimless or sad again. But what sort of life would that get me? Probably one in which I was still a marginally miserable academic. So not an option.
* I have been trying to organize a post about this for a while. Especially because I want to acknowledge that my experiences are really different from the vast majority of graduate students, and I don’t want to pretend that what’s true for me is true for everyone. The cliffs notes version is: I was born into the 1%, I stand with the 99%. Tax me, please!