Will the Introspection Ever End?
Since posting my reasons for quitting a couple of days ago, I’ve been thinking about what parts are bullshit and which parts are true. (For impatient readers, all that really matters in this post can be found in the last three sentences. The rest is navel-gazing.) Many of those reasons were imagined, polished and adjusted in the process of explaining myself to other people. Along the way, I surely noticed and selected phrases that got a positive response and had good entertainment value. And I surely selected phrases that helped me feel more comfortable with my decision (and avoided topics that rubbed the raw flesh of my doubt). The more I adjusted and reiterated my explanations, the more I’ve persuaded myself that they are true. Whatever my original reasons were, I have new reasons now.
Put in their most productive light, the public explanations helped me put words to feelings of which I’d only been vaguely aware. For example, many people asked why I wanted to leave such a cushy situation where I am free to teach what I want. This encouraged me to think more carefully about what I did and did not find worthwhile in the Drugs and Big History classes, and why it just seemed like beating my head against the wall to do more of the same. I am very well trained in the shaping of evidence into plausible arguments in the service of persuading others and myself. That was my job.
On the other hand, my insistence that “I’ve had a good career, it’s time to move on” is more of a soundbite than an insight. This phrase that gained a life of its own through positive audience response. It is true that I am much less cynical and bitter than before, and that I think this has freed me up for change. But what I did not mention is that I am actually still a bit jealous of the greater success some of my colleagues have earned. This is less true than before as I’ve become increasingly detached. But these kinds of feelings are still hard to avoid. They are saturated into the fabric of the institution, and are deeply at the core of what makes the institution miserable. To put it differently, however much I could perform some of the actions that led to success, I still didn’t feel like I fit.
I really don’t know the balance between my just wanting to escape this poisonous emotional cycle of academia (which can be so easily framed as ‘running away’) and my repeated assertions that I have gone as far as I can with academia (‘I appreciate what I’ve learned but am ready to move on’). The former seems to come from a deeper, less acknowledged place. The latter seems more like a rationalization. But perhaps this is just my fear and cynicism talking? Why should I believe my self-critical feelings more than my positive feelings?
The Indian stages of life stuff is something that I’ve repeated to myself frequently over the past few months, as much to persuade myself as to explain anything to others. I find it inspiring, much like those “You can’t do something great until you take a risk” clichés. I didn’t talk about taking risks in my explanations precisely because it sounds like such a platitude. The Indian stages sound less like Nike commercials. But, to be sure, it is the equivalent of Nike commercials for introspective, middle-aged people like me.
In explaining myself, I very consciously toned down some of the spiritual, Tantra and Jungian stuff I’ve been reading and doing the past few years. I aluded to it through phrases such as ‘learned new things’, ‘reached the limits of academic thought’, ‘lopsidedly intellectual’ (which is something I read in a Jungian book 5 years ago) and references to ineffable drug experiences and Indian life stages. But even this toned down version still runs the risk of seeming flaky to an academic audience. But why should I care, why am I afraid? Well, because I am still enough of an academic that a lot of this still seems a bit flaky to me, and I am quite embarrassed and uncertain about it. I tell myself that my academic training will help me cut through the New Age bullshit and get to the core. And much of my public explanation is about how academic attitudes can limit our understanding and engagement with life. I hope it’s true.
My audiences also conspired in helped me to avoid certain topics. For example, only one person asked me why I can’t look at my job as a service, and opportunity to contribute to knowledge, help students, and to give back some of what I have learned in the first half of my life? Most people seemed to share the assumption that a life of self-absorbed self-discovery is a good life. I’m not so sure.
Only a couple of people asked about my family and daughter. To a large extent, this reflected our inexperience and incompetence in discussing (beyond banalities) anything outside the narrow academic world where we interact. But my daughter is definitely my strongest attachment, the person that makes every choice difficult, especially choices that will take me away from her and reduce the resources I can provide for her. On the other hand, my girlfriend is one of the greatest inspirations, a constant reminder of how it is possible to be a fantastic person without school and without fear. My mother and ex-wife are there too, someplace deep in my soul and in my self-criticisms and self-confidence in ways that I still don’t quite understand. It’s a complicated mess, and I am glad nobody pushed this question too far.
I was also a bit vague about what I plan to do for the next year or so. Plenty of people asked—surely curious (as am I) about how one can survive outside of the ivory walls. I made glancing audience-appropriate references to massage classes, spiritual and tantric practice, Luna’s businesses, my fascination for the complexities of the Thai sex industry, working with ayahuasca healing or just focusing on my non-intellectual side before I made a decision. Some people wanted reassurance that I might return to intellectual activities, and I acknowledged the possibility. But for the most part it was easy enough to deflect the question and stick to talking about the reasons for leaving. There is nothing that humanists and social scientists like more than to hear an insightful critique laced with with vague references to a better possible world. And historians are particularly loathe to go beyond vague references and actually predict the future.
All told, my explanations have a jaunty tone that rings a bit false. Even if my explanations are true as far as they go, they are also continued evasion of those personal shadows I don’t want to confront—a tendency to avoid confrontation, self-isolation, fear of power and responsibility, distaste for practical concerns, etc. But maybe this is just my mom and ex-wife speaking? . . .
Enough. Really, all I should just say to myself and to others is, “It is finally time to stop fucking worrying about it. You’ll never know anything unless you get on with it.”