“And when the event, the big change in your life, is simply an insight — isn’t that a strange thing? That absolutely nothing changes except that you see things differently and you’re less fearful and less anxious: isn’t it amazing that a completely invisible thing in your head can feel realer than anything you’ve experienced before? You see things more clearly. And it comes to you that this is what it means to love life, this is all anybody who talks seriously about God is ever talking about. Moments like this.”The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen (2002)
Last night after being appointed to fill an open position on the School Board, I returned home and finally finished reading The Corrections. It isn’t the kind of book I would usually read. First, it’s a novel! Second, it is long on character development and short on action. Third, to the extent that there is a central story, it is about the web of social relationships entangling the members of the Lambert family. Not exactly fertile ground for a guy’s whose last fiction read was a Kinky Friedman detective novel.
The quote at the top of this post is my favorite from the book. It is spoken by a character named Sylvia Wroth who befriends the aging matriarch in the Lambert family, Enid, on a cruise. Sylvia tells Enid that her daughter was murdered by one her students. The Wroth’s are on the cruise to avoid being at home when their daughter’s killer is executed. Sylvia says the lines above when telling Enid about how acknowledging some hard truths about her daughter and herself permitted her to find peace and joy in life again.
I love this passage because it so beautifully captures how serious self-reflection — acknowledgement and acceptance of the unpleasant truths about ourselves and our lives, the truths that most of us spend our lives trying to suppress and conceal from both ourselves and the outside world — can transform everything in our lives. Allowing joy and happiness to flow back into life.
For me, that life-altering idea came to me while listening to Tim Ferriss’s interview with executive coach Jerry Colanna during a trail run at Birchwood Lake and the Tourne. Colanna has an impressive biography, but when he talks he sounds like a complete loon. On the Ferriss podcast, he talked about how his spirit guide is a spider that came to him during a dream on retreat after dancing nearly naked in a drum circle. I remember thinking “I don’t know how much of this guy I can take.” I thought about stopping to select a less-loony podcast to listen to on my run, but I consider mid-run breaks cheating so on I ran.
Then, Colanna posed on the podcast a great question that he asks all his clients.
“How have I been complicit in creating the conditions I say I don’t want?”Jerry Colanna, Tim Ferriss Podcast
To anyone who has spoken with me over the last three or four years, it isn’t a secret that life as a professor was making me miserable. I had some pretty good reasons for my misery. I was in a discipline where the top peer-reviewed journals published articles with titles like “The Semiotics of the Condom: Meaning and Condom Use in Rural Malawi,” and the annual conference has themes like “Real Utopias,” “Feeling Race,” and “Engaging Social Justice for a Better World.” I taught at a university where a plurality of my undergraduate students were unprepared for college-level academic courses and where a small but vocal group of students and faculty made it difficult for everyone else (including myself) to have open and honest discussions in class for fear of being called a racist, misogynist, homophobe, or transphobe. I was in a department where faculty members rarely spoke to one another outside of faculty meetings.
Colanna’s question “How have I been complicit in creating the conditions I say I don’t want?” made me think about my unhappiness differently. How had I been complicit in creating the conditions that were making me miserable? I realized that I was complicit in a million small ways. I, like most professors, dumbed down my courses when confronted with students unprepared for rigorous academic work. Over time, I revised my courses to avoid controversial topics because I didn’t have the stomach for arguing with the small group emotional, aggressive students who by all appearances were incapable of rational discussion of counterarguments or unpleasant facts. I wasn’t as supportive as I should have been of the rare student who had a stronger appetite for classroom intellectual conflict and debate than I did. I too often remained silent as I watched standards drop and the socially-acceptable scope of debate on important social and educational topics contract in my discipline, departments, and universities.
I told myself little lies about why each of these accommodations was necessary or justified. If the University saw fit to admit students unprepared for college-level coursework, it was ok for me to recalibrate my expectations to a level that most students had a shot at passing. If the University was pushing for more M.A. students because of its financial challenges, it was ok for me to lower admission standards to protect the Ph.D. program from closure and its current students from being stranded in a dormant program. If I saw my discipline becoming less scientific and more ideological, it was ok to remain silent as long as I aimed to publish objective, scientific research.
What I came to understand after than run was that my misery and unhappiness with my life as a professor was more a reflection of how I had responded to the moral dilemmas and challenges a professor in an American university faces today than to those dilemmas and challenges themselves. I decided then and there that I would no longer be complicit in creating the conditions I said I didn’t want. I would not lie to myself or anyone else. I would tell the truth, even if it came at a personal cost.
That invisible thing in my head has changed everything.