May 5, 2012

My Story 1

It is amazing how a change in one's life can reorient one's perspective and shed new light on oneself.

From 2008 to 2011, I was an assistant professor of philosophy at Bryn Mawr College. I often enjoyed the job. I was surrounded by wonderful and smart colleagues and students. I was one of the lucky ones--I got a tenure track job in academia. Outwardly, all was well. Yet: inside myself I was unhappy, and day dreamed about leaving my job. I didn't go to conferences. I didn't seek to publish. I avoided actions which required committing to the profession. Why? Even I couldn't make sense of it. I chastised myself: "Look how good you have it! What is the matter with you? You are a cry baby! Get it together!" I blamed myself. And because I did, I didn't talk to my colleagues about what I was feeling. Outwardly everything seemed well, so I assumed that the source of the dissatisfaction must be me. There must be something wrong with me. I felt ashamed of my inability to commit to the profession. I tried to get it together. But the day dreams persisted.

From 1999 to 2008, I was a graduate student in philosophy at Harvard University. I often enjoyed it. My professors and fellow grad students were smart and friendly. I was one of the lucky ones--I had an opportunity to spend all my time doing philosophy, aided by the resources and prestige Harvard offered. Outwardly, all was well. Yet: inside myself I was unhappy, and day dreamed about quitting grad school. I had trouble identifying with my dissertation. Often I wasn't excited about what I wrote, feeling that my voice in the thesis was different from the inner voice of my thinking. I avoided going to conferences and developing a professional identity. At unexpected moments I would take a combative attitude to the profession I was seeking to enter. Why? I couldn't make sense of it. I chastised myself. "All grad students feel some kind of dissatisfaction. Don't let it get to you! Be strong! Overcome it. Don't be weak." I blamed myself. And because I did, I didn't talk to my advisers or friends about what I was feeling. It felt like I was betraying my teachers and friends to share with them that I felt a big gulf between myself and the profession, that at times to be in the profession felt as if the walls were closing in on me. How do I share that without losing my ties with them? Without losing my own ties to philosophy? I tried to get it together. But the disquiet and confusion persisted.

From 1995 to 1999, I was an undergraduate at Cornell University. I enjoyed it often. My professors and friends were kind and considerate. I was one of the lucky ones--I was at an Ivy League school, and I could study anything I wanted. I chose philosophy. Outwardly, all was well. Yet: often I felt disconnected from everyone, and day dreamed about leaving college. In classrooms I often sought out the seats in the corner where I would be least conspicuous. I looked forward to my senior thesis, but abandoned it half way through. I was eager to take as many philosophy classes as I could, but found myself frequently bored in them. Why? I couldn't make sense of it. I chastised myself: "Here you are at this beautiful campus, surrounded by knowledge and books. What more could you want? You are just afraid of success. Of commitment. Your parents worked hard to put you in this position. Don't waste it!" I blamed myself. And because I did, I didn't talk to my teachers or my family about how I was feeling. I only felt a vague dissatisfaction, which seemed to thwart  my commitment to my education. But I was unable to conceptualize the uneasiness, or express it clearly in words. I assumed this was because the uneasiness was my fault, that there was some malfunction within me. Since I felt ashamed of my dissatisfaction, it seemed best to hide it from others. I tried to get with the program. But the dissatisfaction persisted.

For fifteen years the questions reverberated in my mind. Stay in college or not? Stay in grad school or not? Stay as a professor or not?

I finally left academia last year. On January 31, 2011 at 3:00pm, I went into my department chair's office and resigned from my job. It was a Monday, and my application for reappointment was due the next day. I taught my last class on April 27. I graded my last paper on May 13.

For the past one year, I have taken time for myself. Did temp work. Listened to music. Played the guitar. Wrote for myself. Read others who had trouble identifying with their education: Salinger, Ellison, Rodriguez. Mainly, I finally started telling myself: "It's not your fault." I stopped blaming myself. Instead of feeling ashamed of my inability to commit to the philosophy profession, I started to try to understand it. Why did I feel that way for fifteen years? What were the causes? What is this peace I am experiencing being out of the profession? Why am I feeling it now? How has my life been affected by events in the world? How can the world be affected by my life?

When I was ashamed of what I felt, I was powerless to understand it. Being unable to understand it, I was powerless to express it. Once I stopped being ashamed, I could stay still long enough to observe what I was feeling. By observing it, I gained the power to understand it. And by understanding it, I gained the power to express it.

"I have striven not to laugh at human actions, nor to weep at them, nor to hate them, but to understand them." - Spinoza

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