Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Why It Has Been Hard to Blog Lately

Perceptive readers may be concerned that I've only been writing about snow lately. And even though I am genuinely excited about all of the snow we have been getting, those perceptive readers would be right to be concerned. While my spirits did pick up over winter break and carried through into the first few weeks of my semester, I've been having a hard time again lately.

On the surface, things have been going well. My classes have continued to go very well indeed, and I hope to write soon to share more details about some of the great things that have been happening in those classes. Also, I have kept reasonable momentum on my research.

What has thrown me off, though, was finding out that I do have to continue as Chair for another two years. This was raised as a possibility back in November, but then I thought I had successfully resolved the situation in my own favor.

It turns out I was wrong.

There are a lot of ways in my life that I have been doing my best to assert myself, and people seem in the moment to be taking me seriously, but then when it comes down to it, nothing changes. Such a sense of powerlessness does lead to depression, my counselor pointed out to me. He told me not to give up, and urged me to look hard for what I can control in my life.

Meanwhile, well-intentioned friends have pointed out to me that it is an honor to be Chair, and that lots of people want this kind of opportunity but are frustrated not to get it. Today's online version of the Chronicle of Higher Education had an article about a philosophy department Chair who lost his Chair position because he refused to commit to being in his office from 8:00 to 5:00 every weekday. I sent this to my counselor with the note, "if only it could be so easy for me to lose my position as Chair!"

But I do realize that that Chair might well have been very disappointed. And I do realize that there are people whose problems are much worse than my own. I realize that there are many ways that I am fortunate to have the life that I have. The forces of poverty, for example, are limiting and soul-crushing. But some of the forces of privilege can be limiting and soul-crushing too. Privilege presses hard against personal integrity and in favor of a certain kind of conformity, and so those who want to use positions of privilege to bring forth justice may meet considerable resistance.

Meeting sustained resistance over time leads to feeling overwhelmed, burnt-out, powerless, and depressed. You can feel pressured by almost everyone around you, with almost no one being actually supportive. You can feel as if great forces keep pushing you to take on roles that go against your very nature.

Sometimes my students say, "everything happens for a reason!" and I hear in their words an optimism about life that I once had myself. For a while in my life, I thought that God's hand was in everything that happened to us. I did not want to believe otherwise. I did not want to acknowledge that tragedy was a real possibility: that life's twists and turns could sometimes throw people off the path of fulfilling their true calling.

I still do not want to believe this, but I do believe that tragic things really can and do happen.

I do not think that my own life has quite taken a tragic turn, but things are serious right now. I'm at a crucial moment. Certain forces in my life have been unrelenting. For a long time I was holding strong and refusing to let these forces crush my hopes and my vision for my life and for what I could do for the world, but my spirits now are greatly strained.

I do not think that it is God challenging me so. I look to God for inspiration and support. And I look hard in my life for what love, wisdom, and support I can find.

I have not given up. I'm doing all I can to stay in touch with who I know myself most truly to be, and I'm looking hard for ways to keep that flame alive.


  1. For the record I've only been acting chair for very short sessions and do not want to be the chair of our department. The main reason is exactly what you note. There would be predictable and stubborn resistence to whatever efforts I made to try to make things better. So I'm quite happy throwing my energy into teaching and research and spending relatively little on trying to make the university or this department run better.

    But if God put me into a position where it was clear that he expected me to do it, then I'd do it. It isn't fun being put into such a position but I can tell you from experience that it can be an opportunity for spiritual growth. You might have to put aside some of the things you would like to be doing--maybe you will have to give up the music that you cherish, or perhaps it might interfere with cultivating friendships that are dear to you. The cost may well be painful and it would be dishonest for someone to encourage you to shoulder the load by denying the cost. So you need to consider carefully whether or not it is really God's will that you do this. It is possible that it isn't. Maybe people are imposing on you and what God really wants is for you to tell them to stick it. From this distance I can't be sure what's what. Perhaps God is arranging circumstances to encourage you to be more assertive. But my gut feeling at this point is that certain coincidences are making it clear to you that you are being asked to carry a burden that it is right for you to carry. It may very well feel like a kind of crucifixion, a dying to self, to have to give up or drastically curtail activities that you cherish in order to make time to do activities you don't enjoy but just need to do. William Penn wrote a little book entitled No Cross No Crown. In liberal Quakerism sometimes we like to focus so much on what is positive and bright that we also want to deny what is painful. But in truth the spiritual path includes the pain of denying self in order to serve others. However, the promise is that what feels like a kind of death in time gives way to a feeling of rebirth.

    You'll be in my prayers as you continue to struggle with this issue. Know that you are not alone.

  2. Thank you, Richard. I appreciate your sharing your thoughts, and I also appreciate your holding me in your prayers.

    I became Chair halfway through my fourth year here, and have been Chair ever since. This semester marks the beginning of my sixth year as Chair. This means that I have been Chair longer than I've not been Chair. And we have had a lot of flux and some pretty serious crises in our department. It has not been easy holding our little department together through all of this.

    The reasons why I became Chair when I did and now must continue for two more years are complex. The short version of the story is that there is no one else.

    But I really really need a break now. I never expected this to continue for so long.

    There's a lot more I could say, but I think I need to process this new development a bit more myself before writing further about it.

  3. Hello CS,

    I'll hold you in my prayers, too. I wish you blessings as you continue to process this.
    - Chris M.

  4. Thank you, Chris M. I really appreciate it!

    - CS