The Academic’s Peculiar Dissonance

The academic state of mind is distinguished, I think, by a peculiar kind of dissonance; the academic is able to entertain two conflicting states of being simultaneously; each informs the other and brings to it its peculiar intensity and torment.

At one end of its affective and emotional spectrum lies the well-known impostor syndrome: the academic worries that he or she is a fraud, unsuited to the rigorous demands of the profession that their life’s choices have brought them to; they are besides themselves with anxiety that one day they will be ‘found out’ or worse, that they will go through the rest of their lives living out this charade, one in which they have managed to somehow convince others–by a toxic combination of lies and artifice and outright dishonesty–that they are purveyors of knowledge, skilled and educated beyond the imaginings of most. They are shocked and surprised and intimidated by the blustering displays of knowledge that their fellow academics subject them to; they examine their own achievements and find them wanting in every dimension when compared with those of their colleagues and other contemporaries; they find that academic life, rather than providing for occasions in which their knowledge will be on display instead provides one forum after the other in which they find out just how much they don’t know; they enter a bookstore and retreat, intimidated by the talents on display; they are convinced their ability will never match up to all those who seem to effortlessly master domains of knowledge they themselves can only nibble at.

At the other end of the spectrum lies what I will call the ‘frustrated and unrecognized genius syndrome’: the academic is convinced that the world has failed to adequately recognize his unique and distinctive talents and knowledge, all the while paying obeisance and elevating to the highest reaches of their profession charlatans of all stripes. They look on with barely contained frustration and anger as accolades and recognition are funneled and channeled to those they consider unworthy; they consider themselves cheated by the vagaries of the fortunes of the academic world; their books and articles are unread, unremarked, uncited, falling stillborn from the press to be embalmed on the dusty shelves of libraries, while those of utter nincompoops are elevated to the status of icons; they look back on their intellectual careers and remark on its many contingent occurrences that could have, with a slight twist or two, catapulted them into those very zones whose air they yearn to breathe. They are always on the cusp of ‘making it’; but they never do; and they remain convinced that if only the chips had fallen in the right way, they would be where those they consider unworthy reside instead. Fate and fortune have been cruel; accursed is this world and its ways. A prophet is never recognized in his day and age.

This is an uncomfortable state of affairs at best; it afflicts students and professors alike. It infects the life of the mind with its own distinctive anxieties and neuroses; it may account for some of the depressing statistics pertaining to mental health in the profession.

Hug an academic today. Or not.

The Indifferent ‘Pain Of The World’

In All the Pretty Horses (Vintage International, New York, 1993, pp. 256-257), Cormac McCarthy writes:

He imagined the pain of the world to be like some formless parasitic being seeking out the warmth of human souls wherein to incubate and he thought he knew what made one liable to its visitations. What he had not known was that it was mindless and so had no way to know the limits of those souls and what he feared was that there might be no limits.

The ‘pain of the world’–its irreducible melancholia and absurdity, its indifference to our fortunes and loves and fears–can indeed feel like a malevolent being, a beast of a kind, one that may, if provoked, swat us about with a terrible malignity.  Here, in these impressions, we find archaic traces of an older imagination of ours; the formless fears of the child’s world have congealed into a seemingly solid mass, serving now as foundations for our anxious adult being. It is unsurprising that we have found ways to pay obeisance to this beast through prayer and fervent wishing and day dreaming and fantasy and incantations and magic and potions; we hope to pass unnoticed through its gauntlet, afraid to set astir the slumbering beast and provoke its attentions and wrath. As John Grady Cole, McCarthy’s character, notes, we fear two things especially about this beast: we suspect ourselves to be particularly vulnerable to its depredations, a particularly attractive prey for this predator; we fear we sport a bull’s eye on our backs, a scarlet letter that marks us out as an offender to be dealt with harshly; we fear there may be no limits to its appetites; we sense that lightning might strike not once, not twice, but without no constraint whatsoever; perhaps we ain’t seen nothin’ yet, and much more misfortune awaits us around the corner on life’s roads.

In our darkest moments we attribute a malevolent intelligence to this beast, but we know the worst eventuality of all would be a mindless beast, one whose ignorance of us and our capacity to tolerate pain could cause us to plumb unimaginable depths, to experience pain whose qualities defy description. (The fears of these sorts of mental chasms are expressed quite beautifully in Gerard Manley Hopkins’ mournful poem ‘No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief.’) McCarthy also seems to suggest the possibility of a presumption of ‘too much’ knowledge on Cole’s part–a la Oedipus, a possible arrogant claim to know the ways and means and methods and mind of the beast; but as McCarthy goes on to note, there is no mind here to be known, no rationale to be assessed, no strategy or tactic to be evaluated; there is merely being and man, caught up in its becoming. It is this irrelevance of man and his capacities and attributes to the working of this beast which is Cole’s deepest fear; it is ours too, the root and ground of the absurdist existentialist vision.


Learning To Live With The Fear Of Heights

I’m terrified of heights; vertigo, nausea, fear, and anxiety instantly make an appearance as I near an airy ledge of any kind. Cliffs in the wilderness, building balconies, these all induce these effects in me. My fear of heights bothers me; I like hiking, I like mountain views, and the best ones are always up among the regions where my fears are at their most insistent, clamoring for attention, demanding control of my body and brain. I gaze at photos of mountaineers on ridges and summits and ice walls, and I’m thrilled and nauseated alike. I want to be up there, but I know what I will feel: terror. During my boarding school years, in the tenth grade, I took up rock climbing in an effort to try to either master, or co-exist with, this fear. Those motivations were quite conscious; I hoped to move on past the worst aspects of those sensations so I could enjoy the mountains. My rock climbing was elementary but I did achieve a moment of acute insight once while abseiling down a training cliff: my feet slipped momentarily, I swung back hard into the rock face, and panicked. Around me, mists swirled, and below me lurked a seemingly bottomless chasm. As I called for help, my instructor yelled at me to push away from the cliff and continue moving down. I was not going to be rescued. A few seconds later, I came to an overhang, pushed out, and smoothly swung down to the floor to come to rest; I was exhilarated. I had encountered trouble in a scary place, and somehow, I had moved on–despite my fears. I had seen a glimmer of a better place; perhaps by controlled exposure to heights, I could learn to live with my fears well enough to be able to travel to places I wanted to see.

Over the years, this insight faded; I left my boarding school in the hills, returned to the plains, graduated from school and college, migrated; I’d gone back to my old ways. I continued to hike in the mountains, but I never took up any kind of climbing again. I remained scared of the heights.

Sometime last year, I began resolving to push myself back to the heights, to train, formally and informally, to get back to trying to ‘master’ those old fears of mine. I took a climbing course in New Hampshire, and an ice climbing course in the Catskills; neither of those classes involved exposure to great heights, but I hoped to start learning those skills and techniques which would let me make a foray to places where I would encounter them. I also hoped to start pushing myself to, er, ‘expose’ myself to, exposure.

This past week’s hike to Mt. Yamnuska–while ostensibly an elementary recreational jaunt, one that thousands of local teenagers pull off every year–thus constituted an integral part of this strategy; the tiny cabled ‘via ferrata‘ section on its approach had filled me with much trepidation when I had first read about it, and so it made eminent sense to attempt it. Online guides said it was not for the ‘faint of heart’; I thought I recognized myself, the very faint of heart. The evening before the hike, I was suddenly struck with fear and doubt; What if I slipped? What if I fell? What if I looked down?

On the day of the hike, the cabled section finally made its appearance; one hiking partner went first, and I followed next. Because the cable is strung tight, it affords a comfortably secure grip as the ledge is traversed; there was one tricky section where the slack in the cable sent me alarmingly into open air. I hung on, slid my hands across, as I hung on tight and moved on. There was some genuine fear in there for a second, but it subsided. A second later, I was done. The summit was a short scramble away. (Interestingly enough, because you have to concentrate on your grip and the placement of your feet, there is little time to think about the exposure behind and below; a very useful lesson.)

I feel faintly ridiculous as I write these words; all I had done was walk across a short section of a cliff ledge, all the while hanging on to a cable. But these sorts of things add up, I suppose, and I can only hope they continue to. I don’t think I’ll ever ‘master’ my fear of heights, but perhaps I’ll learn to live with them in a way that will allow me access to those regions up among the clouds that do so much to lift my spirits.

Taming The Beast: Writing By Deleting Text

Some six or so years ago, I began work on a book. I’m still not done and the end isn’t in sight either. I’ve alluded to this state of affairs on this blog before: on my About page where I make note of the extremely impressive and portentous title the book bears, and once, in a post on the anxieties of the ‘creative process’ when I confessed I seemed to be permanently adrift in that terrifying stage where you feel like a dog’s dinner is considerably more promising in its appearance than your dearly beloved project. In the intervening years, I’ve finished other books, so all is not lost, but this unfinished work is now an albatross and a millstone and several other metaphorical burdens to boot. Almost three years ago, as I returned to teaching after my academic and parenting sabbatical, I realized my ‘book’ did not deserve such a dignified title; it was merely a file containing some ninety-five thousand words of notes culled from various sources and some assorted ramblings scattered throughout, posing as commentary and annotation and critique.

This morning, during my hopefully daily editing session that I’ve set aside to work on my book, the word count approached sixty-nine thousand. I’ve finally begun to tame the beast, in the best possible way, by cutting it down to size. Twenty-six thousand words have bit the dust. The file might grow again but for now, matters appear considerably more tractable than they did three years ago.

There is some deeply satisfying about deleting troublesome text, words and sentences that refuse to behave, to make sense, to conform, to fit in. Negotiations have failed; expulsion is the only way out. And so it happens; I highlight the block of text, and Ctrl-X the sucker. If it’s lucky, it goes into a separate file called ‘bitbucket,’ possibly to be salvaged for future use and reintroduced into another version of the manuscript; if I’m feeling particularly ruthless, I do not bother with such niceties. History informs me that I’ve never, ever, reused anything from a bit bucket file; it’s merely there to provide a kind of security blanket, a fallback measure of sorts; but once you’ve moved on, you’ve moved on, and that’s that. There’s no looking back. (There are, of course, many deletions that occur because I’ve carried out an efficient rewrite of the same material; that’s satisfying too in its own special way; the succinct, sharp, expression of a thought in a sentence remains an aspirational ideal and much brush needs to be cleared to bring that about.)

Deleting text is an old writing technique; it’s one of writing’s great pleasures. Sure, there are times it’s agonizing–thus leading to the sober gnomic advice to not be afraid to kill your darlings–but truth be told, very little regret ever evinces itself. The text to be deleted stands in the way, obscuring the promised view; shoving it aside gets rid of the dross, letting the gold shine through.

I really should have been working on my book instead of writing this post. Tomorrow morning, and more deletions beckon.


The Pleasures Of Providing Directions To The Lost

A short while ago, as I alighted at the New York City’s Herald Square subway station, I was approached by a Chinese gentleman seeking directions to Penn Station; he needed to catch a New Jersey Transit train to, well, New Jersey. I was already ‘late’ for my weekly Tuesday stint at the library, but I stopped and gave him explicit and detailed directions. He listened eagerly and attentively and then sallied forth; I slapped him on the back as he left, calling out ‘good luck’ as I did so. As I strode off to the library–where I am now writing this post–I had a smile on my face. The beneficiary of my directions had been bewildered and disoriented; now, hopefully, he wasn’t any more.

Once, some twenty years or so ago, while walking up Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue, I had spotted an elderly Sikh gentleman clutching at the hands of passersby, imploring them for something; I crossed the street, and heard him asking for directions in extremely broken English. I sidled up to him and spoke in Punjabi, “Sir, what are you looking for?” (Rather, I called him ‘padshah,’ a colloquial term that literally means ’emperor’ but doubles as a respectful term of address.) His expression changed dramatically from confusion to the broadest of smiles; he grasped my hand and squeezed it with some feeling. A minute or so later, I was heading off again, to the same library as I was headed to today, once again smiling from ear to ear.

There is something deeply satisfying about providing directions to the lost, to the bemused, to those cast adrift in strange environs. I have not yet descended into the realm of the symbolic or the metaphoric, and I don’t need to; getting lost, even if only temporarily, is a disconcerting experience. The fear of being so informs every step of mine in the great outdoors; it has prevented me, until this past summer, from ever going hiking solo. I can empathize effortlessly with the lost, with those temporarily ‘unsure of their position.’ I have ‘been there,’ I have ‘done that’; and I didn’t like it. (This act has special resonance for me in New York City, my first port of call in the US some thirty years ago; back then I was often too scared to ask for directions, intimidated by the city’s reputation and by the supposed dangers of being mistaken for a tourist.)

For that hopefully brief period of time when we are not sure which way to turn, we are overcome by a panoply of emotions, novel and archaic: frustration, irritation, impatience, anxiety, these all surge to the fore; we worry about missed appointments; we curse our inability to magically walk on the straight path home; men fret about whether their masculinity faces its most rigorous challenge yet; the GPS rises in our esteem as the greatest blessing of this technological age. To apply a healing balm to these myriad afflictions is Good Work; we should not shirk it.  And I don’t.

Action As Antidote To Political Anxiety

The spring semester has started today and it is no exaggeration to say that I’ve not gone into any previous semester–over a period extending to the fifteen years I’ve spent here at Brooklyn College–feeling quite as unsettled as I do today. Perhaps it was the third cup of coffee, perhaps it was just the stage-fright that is my usual companion to semester kick-offs. Or perhaps it was just dread. We live in interesting times, and one of the tolls these times exact is a psychological one.

This morning, I met one of my students in my office to go over his plans for an independent study in the philosophy of science this semester. I assigned readings, talked about possible writing assignments, and made some preliminary remarks about how I hoped our fortnightly discussions would go. Our conversation proceeded smoothly in general, but there were a couple of rough spots: first, my student greeted me by asking how I had been, and I found myself unable to answer for a few seconds, and then, when my student told me how he had spending time at JFK providing translation services for the ACLU lawyers helping resolve the fiasco created by Donald Trump’s anti-refugee executive order, I was rendered speechless again.

My student is Egyptian-American; born to, and raised in, America by Egyptian parents . He is one of the brightest and most sincere students I have ever had the pleasure of interacting with here at Brooklyn College. He is hard-working, erudite, passionate, committed to being a good student and a good human being. I am proud of him, and happy to be somehow involved in his education. I am, therefore, protective of him too; I am concerned for his safety and well-being these days. This fear is not a particularly well-formed one, and so it amounts to a species of disabling anxiety. (His country of origin is not one of the blacklisted countries of the executive order, but I was still alarmed to hear his American citizen parents were planning on traveling to Egypt this summer.)

I suspect that what underwrites that my emotional responses to my student’s presence is a deeper worry about my family and friends; there is no doubt that the world today is a more dangerous place than it was on January 19th or November 8th: bigotry and racism have acquired executive power, and it is being exercised vigorously, even if incoherently; political chaos is almost upon us; and much worse apparently awaits.

The only antidote to this quasi-cosmic funk is that old elixir: action. This administration needs toppling and many points of pressure exist in order to do so: pressure on elected representatives to block cabinet nominations for now, and later, against legislative atrocities; financial support to those–like the ACLU and SPLC–fighting legal battles; vigorous public protest, civil disobedience, and direct action, including but not limited to, general strikes. (Perhaps hacktivists will step up and make it harder for the technical infrastructure required to implement Trump and Bannon‘s regime to actually function; on this point, more anon.) Thus far, I’ve written and donated and made a few phone calls; much more needs to be done; therapeutic relief awaits.

Letting Your Childhood Make Your Parenting Easier

To be a good parent, think like a child. Well, that was deep. Let me see if I can unpack that. First, think like the child you were, or imagine and remember yourself as being; in any case, this is the best you can do. Now, think about what your perception of your  parents was like in that time of your life–again, as best as you can remember it. Take as long as you like. (Some of us might need extended therapy sessions to induce such self-knowledge.) Got that? Good. Now, open your eyes, and look around at your parenting world: are you now open to the possibility your child might be perceiving the world–and your place within it–the way you  used to? And if that is the case, do you have any reason to imagine your child needs the  parenting you think it does?

I make these suggestions to reduce some of the parental anxiety that comes from a peculiar sort of overburdening of the child: ascribing to him or her fears, anxieties, needs, beliefs, that exist largely within parental fancies and imaginings.  The best antidote to such anxieties is the thought experiment I describe above. (Standard caveats about neurotic responses to my suggestions apply; neuroses will construct parental memories as feverishly anxious as they need to be in order to sustain present parenting patterns.)

I am drawn to make such claims because–as might be imagined, I revisited an episode of parental anxiety, and was able to mitigate it somewhat by casting my mind back as I described above. When I’m alone at home with my daughter, I often fret about whether she is sufficiently occupied, whether she can be alone by herself while I attend to something else that needs my time. Because I often suffered from loneliness in my teen years (and sometimes even later), my usually melancholic disposition drew me to project these same feelings onto my daughter, causing me untold worry if I were to ever consider stepping away from her; I would imagine her lost and bewildered, wondering what to do, floundering about helplessly in her isolation. But when I thought back to what my reactions were as a toddler when left to my devices by my parents–as far as such memories can be trusted–I realized I had been rather comfortable in those circumstances: I had daydreamed, played with my limited collection of toys, browsed through picture books, or just investigated perfectly ordinary physical objects in my surroundings. Interestingly enough, those times had been rather enjoyable; I wasn’t constantly having instructions pertaining to ‘reality’ thrust in my face, and could just play with the elements of the various fantastic worlds I inhabited. When I see how my daughter occupies herself when she is ‘left alone,’ I sense some of these diversions–or activities like them–occupy considerable time and space for her as well.  If that’s the case, she’ll be perfectly fine while I step away; in fact, she might even welcome it. (As interestingly enough, she has reassured me on occasion when I check in her to find out if it’s OK for me to ‘do my thing.’)

There are many ways in which our childhood is a burden for our parenting; there are others by which it can relieve some of its cares.