Saturday, April 09, 2005

Self as Disputed Territory

What is strange for me about transitioning from pre-tenure life to post-tenure life is my realizing how hard it is for me to truly and fully claim who I really am, and project that unapologetically into the world.

Is this a gender issue? Is it harder for women to center their lives around their work than it is for men?

Or, is this a societal problem in our culture today? We have built a culture so based on putting pressure on each other that, as a culture, we undervalue (or even feel threatened by) true self-determination?

Or, is this just my own personal problem?

Perhaps I need to explain a bit more what I mean. I found pre-tenure life challenging because, even though I am strongly self-motivated, and I was motivated to do exactly the things that tenure-review pressures me to do, having that external pressure bearing down so hard on me felt like a kind of constant, distracting background noise that made it hard for me to find the contemplative silence I needed to focus truly on my work. Still, I tried to remind myself that I was very fortunate that the external pressure corresponded with my internal motivation, and tried to convince myself to let that help empower me. It was a good idea. Did it work? Yes and no. Yes, because I did get tenure. No, because I still didn't myself get quite where I really wanted to be. But lately, I am realizing a new kind of "yes" that now I have lost -- because the world is so oriented towards coping with external pressures, I actually was successful in claiming time to write by saying with panic in my voice, "I must make time to write or I won't get tenure!" and people then respected that and left me alone.

Now, the most common question/comment I receive when people hear that I got tenure was along the lines of "now you can relax."

But I don't want to relax. Now, undistracted by the background noise of tenure-anxiety, I'm finally ready to begin. But my writing time has become a contested zone. My writing identity has become a contested zone. The nature of my true self has become disputed territory.

People will respect your need to do things they might not want you to do if it is because some powerful other demands it of you. But when it is inner motivation that compels you, an inner sense of calling, many people don't seem to understand that or respect that -- or they interpret it as "selfishness." I know that it is not selfishness, but still, from moment to moment, if I am in the presence of someone who wants my attention, it is hard in those moments to turn to the solitude I need for writing, even though writing is actually relational too.

So, again, I wonder if this is somewhat gender-related. Have I been acculturated, because I am a woman, to give immediately-present relationships priority over activities conducted in apparent solitude? Or have I chosen this because I do in fact care about the real people in my life?

Other questions: is feeling a sense of calling so rare that most people cannot relate to this?

And finally: how do I find the strength, and build the right kinds of supportive relationships, to enable me to live more fully from the center of who I know myself to be, even though many important people in my life want me to relax now and spend more time with them? And I do care very much about these people! I treasure their presence in my life. And yet I do feel called to other work too in the world.

The world is so full of urgent problems, and yet I don't want to say, "Leave me alone, I'm trying to solve the world's problems," because, well, that sounds so pretentious, not to mention hopeless! When I've tried (a bit less baldly) to say that to some people, they hint that maybe I suffer delusions of grandeur and ought to get counseling. At this, a fatal flaw in my self-confidence throbs, I think to myself, "how silly of me!" and I immediately shift my attention away from myself and back into being attentive and supportive of that person, and then "peace" is restored in that relationship, at least for the moment.

One hint I have of a solution is that the bulk of the problem rests in me. If I could give myself full permission to care about the world and to try to address significant problems, fully realizing that my net impact in the end may be nil, and yet my struggle matters anyway, because my caring for the world is real, and really is about the world and not about me at all -- if I can get fully to this conviction within myself, then maybe the outer will take care of itself. Maybe my self has become a contested zone because I have let it. Maybe I can learn to live in a way that people will no longer dare to dispute with me who I really am, but will simply respect who I really am, because I will be projecting it in such a way that people will realize it's not up for questioning. I don't know. But I'm guessing that I'm not alone in this kind of struggle. We are interdependent beings, and so everyone's self is disputed territory, to some extent.

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