I have been unable to work for quite some time. Well, what does “work” mean here, exactly? It’s not that I have been unable to write — because write I did: here, on Remarks on Bookmarks, but also for myself only. Neither am I unable to do manual work: I recently painted all the rooms of my flat, ceilings included, in what can only be described as a tour de force. In addition, I managed to teach my university courses as planned, supervised a couple of bachelor’s theses, and did, I’d say, a pretty good job in caring for this year’s cohort of students.
What I can’t currently do and have had trouble doing over the past couple of months — or has it been a year already? — is and was what are probably the two things considered most important for someone in my position: give academic talks and write academic papers. I also turned down a couple of interview requests, where “turning down” includes the (in)action of ignoring the f**k out of my inbox. Because sometimes even saying “no” feels too demanding. So let’s label these kinds of activities WORK (all caps).
Regarding this specific inability of mine to WORK, I joked a while ago that I am “beyond care” — a supposedly funny twist on the phrase “beyond repair”. But that’s not true, of course. Because I do care, sometimes, if my mental jiu-jitsu fails and I accidentally let the thought(s) of yet another missed deadline, yet another unanswered e-mail, or yet another failed attempt to revise a paper, intrude. So, really, what’s wrong with me? Is there such a thing as selective depression? Because I don’t really feel depressed, all things considered. I know what the inability to experience joy feels like, and this time it’s not like that. I enjoy stuff. I cook. I do yoga every morning. I meet with people — and horses. Hell, I even enjoy philosophical conversations and reading philosophy books, as long as these activities are not supposed to lead anywhere.
A Career? Just Say No.
So here’s an idea, a pretty wild one: What if there isn’t anything wrong with me? If it’s not me that’s beyond repair? What if my inability to WORK is a healthy reaction of mine; what if my deeply felt, sometimes downright physical, reluctance towards WORK is my mind’s and body’s way of forcing me to acknowledge that something else is broken?
What first spurred me to choose philosophy as one of my academic subjects was sheer curiosity, I think, and the air of wisdom that surrounded the term “philosophy”. Back in 2005, when I settled on my study programme, I did not want to confine myself by choosing my subjects with an eye towards employability or monetization. What made me stick with philosophy after my bachelor’s degree, however, was something else: a promise of time and freedom to think and pursue ideas, to read deeply as well as widely, to challenge myself, and to grow intellectually and as a person.
I still want these things, as well as some fair amount of time reserved exclusively for idling. What I don’t want: a career. At least in German, the word “Karriere” — other than the word “Werdegang” — has a connotation of professional advancement, ambition, competitiveness, and workaholism, and I am not, nor do I aspire to be, a businesswoman. Pace Sheryl Sandberg, I’d rather opt out than lean in. I’d rather take an extended nap. Daily. Other philosophers, I am told, have also taken naps on a regular basis.
Time & Peace Of Mind
Cassady Rosenblum is a former radio producer who quit her job with NPR Boston during the pandemic. In a recent opinion piece for the New York Times, she writes
Here in the hills, the new silence of my days, deepened by the solitude of the pandemic, has allowed me to observe the state of our planet in the year 2021 — and it looks to be on fire, as our oligarchs take to space. From my view down here on the carpet, I see a system that, even if it bounces back to “normal,” I have no interest in rejoining, a system that is beginning to come undone.
The pandemic has prompted reflection, and according to a large number of personal accounts, it has been transformative for many people from various walks of life. It certainly has been so for me. Despite worries about how Covid might affect society at large and especially those living in already precarious conditions, I somehow enjoyed things coming to a halt in spring 2020. Things coming to a halt, for me, included the following: One conference after another was cancelled, among those one I had organized myself; weekly departmental meetings were postponed; the daily number of e-mails in my inbox dropped; there were less cars and less people in the streets, which, in turn, meant less noise both by day and by night. I am not alone in my appreciation of the calmer (and calming) aspects of the first few weeks of the shutdown. According to the German newspaper ZEIT Online, many of its readers reported a significant increase in wellbeing. (I know, of course, that those very weeks were extremely challenging for others.)
Suddenly I had a lot of time to reflect upon which things really mattered to me, and a glimpse of what life without, or at least with a significantly smaller amount of, WORK would probably feel like. And there were less distractions that would allow me to redirect my thoughts away from the broken places in academia and beyond, from a perverted notion of productivity and an inhumane idea(l) of competitiveness. Again, I aspire to be a philosopher, not a businesswoman.
Susan Haack, reflecting on the state of academic philosophy at large and on the conditions for meaningful philosophical work, writes:
we surely overrate the usefulness of what we like to call “stimulation,” and underrate the need for time, peace of mind, mature reflection.
I’d say that there are different kinds of stimulation, and some might be more useful than others — also depending on one’s personality. My hunch is, rather, that we sometimes have too narrow a view of what “useful stimulation” is. I’m pretty sure, for instance, that my more philosophical thought is intertwined with, and benefits in multiple ways from, my engaging with literature (and art more generally), my conversations with non-philosophers, a number of great TV series, some instances of supposedly pointless web surfing, a few video games — you name it.
Still, Haack’s stress on the need for time and peace of mind strikes me as important. What good can come from a state of perpetual anxiety — of one’s contract ending soon, of one’s grant application not going through, of one’s “output” not meeting the standards of productivity adopted by the profession? Why are we even expected to produce and publish (not anywhere, mind you) written work at all, especially the younger ones of us? (What is philosophy, really? What does it mean to “do philosophy”? What are our obligations qua philosophers, to ourselves and to others? — I don’t have an answer ready to these questions.)
I recently gave a written interview for a website devoted to public philosophy. One of the questions read: “Is there some advice you would have liked to get early on in your career?” Now, if I’d like to call what I have, or do, a “career” — which I don’t, for the reasons mentioned above — I’d probably still be in its earlier stages. So which advice would I consider helpful for someone even earlier in their career, say, a graduate student, or a PhD candidate? Maybe something like this: “Take a nap from time to time. Cultivate a hobby, something you really enjoy. Nurture your friendships, and try not to limit your circle of friends to other PhD students. Go for a run, or a swim, or a walk when you feel like it. Read a novel. Netflix’n’chill. Most importantly, don’t think of these activities as means to keep your productivity high.”
The aforementioned NYT article by Rosenblum also quotes the American writer and activist Audre Lorde on the guiding power of the erotic within us. “The erotic”, here, is not confined to the sexual realm, but is to be taken in the broad (antique) sense of love, enjoyment, or positive excitement that is felt by individuals in the face, or in anticipation, of any kind of activity, task, or experience.
When we begin to live from within outward, in touch with the power of the erotic within ourselves, and allowing that power to inform and illuminate our actions upon the world around us, then we begin to be responsible to ourselves in the deepest sense.
This quote reminds me of a (much more simple) phrase that one of my favorite YouTube yoga instructors repeats in each one of her videos: “Find what feels good.” (Thank you, Adriene Mishler.) As I understand it, the call to find what feels good isn’t an invitation to slack off or sloth around, or to be an irresponsible hardcore hedonist jerk. There are challenges and struggles that feel good, sometimes it feels good to push ourselves, to go beyond what is comfortable for us. On the other hand, there are challenges that feel exhausting in a bad way, tasks that feel pointless, activities that leave us feeling empty, disappointed, or desperate — and maybe we should try to avoid or get rid of the latter.
Two weeks ago or so, during my online office hours, I spoke with a student of mine who is working on his bachelor’s thesis right now. He told me of his plans to leave university after completion of his B.Ed. in order to pursue a full-time job as a fitness trainer. My first thought was that we — meaning the university at large, the specific study programme, and probably also the individual teachers — failed him, in more than one respect. That we didn’t do enough in order to keep our students motivated and optimistic during the pandemic, that we didn’t do enough to prepare those pursuing a bachelor’s of education for their lives as teachers… Both of these more general thoughts are very probably, and sadly, true. Still, after talking with this particular student about his particular reasons to leave, I felt that he had made the right decision for himself, at this particular time. That he had found and followed the erotic within himself.
Bookmarks (to be deleted after publication of this post):
- Cassady Rosenblum: “Work Is A False Idol” (The New York Times)
- Kelli María Korducki: “We’re Finally Starting To Revolt Against The Cult Of Ambition” (The New York Times)
- Bertrand Russell: “In Praise Of Idleness” (Harper’s Magazine)
- Joe Pinsker: “The Best Time-Management Advice Is Depressing But Liberating” (The Atlantic)
- Lara McKenzie: “Reading Academic Quit Lit – How And Why Precarious Scholars Leave Academia” (LSE Impact Blog)