Thursday, April 16, 2009


We need affirmation every now and then -- it keeps us motivated and able to keep moving forward against the currents of weariness and resistance we sometimes encounter, especially in a highly busy life.

Faithful readers will have picked up on the fact that my own life is a bit out of alignment. I do get encouragement, but most often that encouragement pushes me into directions I do not really want to go, while I've met considerable resistance in moving forward in the directions I do want to go. More specifically, I got pushed onto an administrative track too early in my career, before I knew better -- I thought I had no choice at the time, and maybe I was right about that. But, tragically, it turned out I was pretty good at the administrative work, even though I found it hard on me emotionally. People have appreciated the combination of my vision, sensitivity, compassion, efficiency, and high standards. They didn't want to let me off that track. But I have done a good job of resisting new opportunities that would lock me in even more. Two administrative positions and three associate dean positions opened up; I refused to apply for any of them. I did, however, continue as department chair, but only because I have been the only tenured member of my department who has remained teaching in my department on a regular basis. The year after next, the two other tenured members of my department will finally return. I will then let go of being department chair, with great relief!

Meanwhile, I have really wanted to devote more time to my academic research and writing, but it has been hard to develop and sustain this in the complexity of full-time teaching, running a department, and starting a new program at my university (Peace Studies). I have managed to keep my research and writing going, but not as much as I would like. I do get positive and helpful feedback when I present my work at conferences. But I've had difficulty getting my work published. This is in part due to the fact that I don't send out my work enough. But when I do, strange and inexplicable things happen, like promised reviewers' notes never arriving.

Trying to build some hope into my future, I had the brilliant idea one day of taking a leave of absence from my university the year after next (when the other tenured members of my department return, to ensure that one of them really does take over being chair!) to devote myself full-time to my book project. The only problem is that I would need funding. So I looked for possible grants. I applied for one. Used to failure now, I was not surprised to be rejected. But I was, of course, disappointed.

Today we had a grants consultant come to campus to work with faculty interested in finding grants. I sent her my failed grant proposal for critique, and expected today's sessions (one group session; one individual consultation) to be humbling, but hopefully illuminating, experiences.

As the group session started, I found myself thinking, "I am doomed," as she passed around sample reviewers' comments and made connections between these comments and what she saw in the proposals we had sent her. I braced myself for public humiliation. I was sure that she would single out my own proposal as exemplifying "totally unintelligible," "failing to demonstrate wider significance," "devoid of intellectual content," or "only of interest to one person--herself." I tried to calm my rising heart rate by reminding myself I was here to learn, and it's good to face reality, and such.

Then a crucial moment came. "You're the one who wrote the proposal about rationalism and empiricism?" she asked me.

"Er, yes," I replied.

"Oh! I spent a lot of time reading that on the flight!" she said.

("Uh oh," I thought to myself.)

"That one is ready to go!" she said!

("Where? The dustbin?!!" I thought to myself in rising panic.)

"Send it! May 1! I know that deadline is fast approaching, but it's nearly ready! That's a very interesting project, and you are a very good writer!"

I could not believe it.

Someone was actually, finally, valuing my work? Appreciating my project?

And . . . complimenting me in front of my peers?

I almost cried.

My colleagues wanted to know more. They were amazed and impressed. I'm very visible on my campus because of my administrative work, but people haven't really seen how much my research and writing means to me. Now this group was seeing a whole new side of me, and it meant a lot to me.

It's not that I seek fame: that scares me. But I realize that I do need some affirmation and support for work that I really feel led to do. Getting support for what I'd rather not do, and indifference or discouragement for the work I really want to do, has been really hard on me.

Today I caught a glimpse of a new possibility -- what life might be like if people supported me in what I really feel led to do.

You can get used to chronic discouragement and disappointment, and develop strategies for pushing forward anyway when you believe deep in your heart that your project is important. It is good to learn, experientially, that this is possible. But that is not a happy life. It's a life that gradually becomes a growing struggle against a kind of depression. It takes tremendous spiritual discipline to resist the temptations to bitterness and despair.

A moment of real affirmation like I received today shoots into life like a brilliant ray of sunlight. The growing fog of chronic disappointment evaporates at once; the warmth and clarity of the sunlight asserts its superior reality. "Believe in your vision of what is possible!" is what I heard it tell me today.


  1. if you ever want me to comment on any of your papers just send it to me. I won't take more than two weeks to read it.

    Best of luck with your grant.

  2. Thanks, Richard! Will you be going to FAHE this year? If so, I look forward to seeing you there!

  3. This hits close to home for me. I work for two different boards of directors (one nonprofit, the other public/private). I actually get lots of affirmation in my work, which is lovely, and yet there's always so much more to do! I'll try to keep in mind your earlier post about the balanced life.

    I'm glad you're able to put your musings on this blog from time to time. Please feel affirmed about that!

  4. Thanks so much, Chris, for your affirmation! I really appreciate it!