This is likely to be a bit of a hike. It’s one of those posts in which some precipitating event has sent me off on a bit of an introspective tail-spin, and sorting out what’s going on in my head and my heart requires putting fingers to keyboard and letting some of the mess out. It’s also the kind of post that has the potential to leave me feeling over-exposed once it’s published, but that I feel nonetheless compelled to get out there, precisely because that feeling of being exposed is often a sign that I’ve tapped into something that many of us have in common and yet don’t often talk about. So here goes.
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I lost two friends from high school last week. Both were kind, caring, talented men, both deeply committed to family and community. Both gone suddenly and utterly unexpectedly.
I hadn’t been in close contact with either of them for some time, though I kept up with them through Facebook. And of course it was Facebook that let me know they were gone, a means of communication simultaneously brutal and anodyne, both a gut-punch and a welcome space in which to share sudden grief. And there was something in the combination of the losses, coupled with the social network’s collective outpouring and my own personal store of regret and shame — seriously, you name someone from high school and the first thing my brain will kick up will be some embarrassing or painful moment that I wish I could go back and undo — that dropped me in a spiral of weirdly retrospective sadness. I was at one and the same time feeling the loss of these two wonderful men, recognizing the pain that their families and closest friends must be feeling, and caught within an upwelling of all of my old high school trauma.
None of this news, this loss, was about me, of course, and my unconscious, reflexive move to make even the death of a friend — of two friends — somehow focus on me and my loss and my trauma brought me up short. It forced me to recognize the extent to which my high school years were characterized by my absolute conviction that no one else anywhere could possibly be going through anything that compared to what I was going through. That recognition deepened the sense of shame that had already resurfaced, making me wonder whether I’ve ever grown up enough to get over the things that happened to me back then, whether I’m in fact still the same insecure, needy, selfish mess that I was at 14 and everything else is just a veneer of professionalization.
And I sit here now questioning my own motives in putting together this post: is this just more self-absorption, more narcissism? Why do I need to write about this?
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I listened to a guided meditation yesterday morning that focused on developing emotional intelligence, something that boy howdy could I use more of. I’ve known for a few years now that I’ve abstracted myself from my emotions to such an extent that I’ll periodically find myself feeling — well, shitty, is all I can tell — and it can take me hours of being still and thinking “what kind of shitty is this? what just happened that precipitated the shitty?” until I’m able to backtrack enough to know that that thing that person said in that meeting really hurt and I’m angry and embarrassed and… phew, okay, I’ve named it and now I feel a little better.
I totally identify, in other words, with Anne Helen Petersen’s description of adulthood as being about “acquiring the skills to feel no feelings at all,” a purposeful movement into our heads and so far out of our hearts that we can, ideally, forget that they exist.
So, developing emotional intelligence; I’m in. Anyhow, the teacher yesterday guided us through a process of remembering something difficult we’ve been experiencing lately, of feeling the sensations of that difficulty as they manifest in the body, and of attempting to name the emotion that’s tied to those sensations. I sat with it for a bit and tried to come up with the right name. Sadness? Sure, but not exactly. Anxiety? Almost always, but not really in this case. Loneliness? Maybe.
And then after a pause the teacher gently listed a number of possible labels, the last of which was shame. Which made my breath catch. There it is.
The next part of the process was to reflect on what it is that emotion needs, what it is asking for. Anxiety, for instance, might be asking for reassurance. Loneliness might be asking for connection. I sat still, aware that the thought “do shame, please” was repeating in the back of my head. And at last, shame, he noted, might be asking for validation.
Asking for validation. It, as the kids used to say, me.
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I suspect that I’m not alone in this, both in a general human sense and among my academic colleagues. And it’s my sense of the commonality within that latter group that has in part driven me to write this post. I think a lot of us share the need for validation as a component of what drives our work. And so when my colleague Beronda Montgomery writes about the importance of working from affirmation, not for affirmation, it feels to me utterly revolutionary: exactly correct, and miraculous if you can do it.
Because here’s the thing: I am at the top of my game. I have the best job I could imagine, working with the best people I know. I’m extraordinarily well-supported in getting to focus on exactly the kinds of work I want to be doing. I have a book out that is by all reasonable measures a success. Things are great. And yet I find myself prone to deep bouts of insecurity about that work, fretting over why the book wasn’t reviewed in that publication and whether I’m really doing anything that matters. And worse, waving off my accomplishments by repeatedly asking myself what I’ve done lately.
That last… is unfortunately not a question I’m alone in asking, at all. I’ve been on something of a lecture-and-workshop circuit this fall, visiting a huge number of campuses and talking with them about ways of cultivating the kinds of generosity that can foster a deeper sense of community on-campus and deeper ties with the communities we ought to serve. These visits have been productive and energizing, but at least once during each of them, someone has asked what I’m working on now that Generous Thinking is out. Or, where they’ve done some research and found the post (to which I am not linking, but you can find it if you want) in which I described the project I thought — and some days still think — would be next on my agenda, they ask more directly about how it’s coming.
These are the kinds of question that I ought to hear as you do great work and I’m looking forward to more of it!, but instead take in as so, no new material, eh?
No, no new material. What have I done lately?
I’ve been in meetings. I’ve been building a new research center. I’ve been attempting to find a way to ensure that an enormously successful and important digital project is able to thrive for years to come. I’ve been learning how to develop and implement a business plan, how to work with heterogeneous teams, how to corral university bureaucracy in ways that support rather than hinder our goals. (I’ll let you know if I manage to figure that one out.) I’ve been running around the country talking about the last book, rather than turning my attention to the next one.
And if I let myself stop long enough to think about it, isn’t that what I ought to be doing? I mean, the work of the book doesn’t stop with the publication of the book, especially not in the case of this particular book; building a conversation that might transform the ways we in higher education work today requires getting out and participating in those conversations. So the book is a step in a larger, longer process, rather than an end in itself.
Except of course for the systems, both institutional and internal, that count accomplishment based on products rather than processes. Those systems are all about ends in themselves, urging us always to press forward to what we’re doing next, rather than lingering where we are, pursuing the now of things to greater fullness.
I increasingly think that many of us might be driven to internalize those systems and to embed ourselves within those institutions that want us to account for ourselves via products rather than processes precisely because of our need for validation. We often don’t publish a book, in other words, because we have something we’re burning to say. We publish that book, rather, as a means of demonstrating that we have had something to say. Having said it, and having gotten external validation for having said it, we are required to move on as quickly as possible to the next thing. External validation demands it: you already said that; got anything else worth hearing?
Anyhow, it’s all got me wondering how much of my working life has been structured — by me; I’ll own this — not just as a retreat from the heart into the safety of the head but also as a means of overcoming shame, as a means of demonstrating my value, most of all to myself.
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So let me correct myself: it’s not only that this is a long post attempting to think my way out of an emotional tail-spin; this has been a career thus far spent trying to think my way out of a similar kind of tail-spin. To find validation through achievement. To forget about feelings and all the difficulty they can cause.
Those feelings don’t go away. But the people you might connect with, the people you might work with, the people you might feel things for and share things with, do.
I had another friend from high school reach out to me over the weekend, a friend I haven’t talked to in years. He asked me to call him, and I’ll admit I was terrified — afraid that I was about to hear more bad news, afraid that I was about to be pulled into some emotional something that I couldn’t handle. What he wanted, however, was to offer me miles for a plane ticket home for one of the upcoming memorial services. As it turns out, I’m already going to be there for other reasons, and was planning to attend the service, but I hope that I’d have taken him up on that enormously generous offer otherwise. What could matter more than taking the time to reflect on the now of things, bringing the best of who we are today, and who we might become, into conversation with the best of who we once were, instead of burrowing into our still-lurking feelings of inadequacy and shame?
It’s a way of being that I’d like to bring to more areas of my life and my work in the year ahead: slowing down enough to recognize the importance of building connection and community, lingering in what I’m doing rather than pressing forward to what I think I ought to have done, focusing less on products and the external validation they bring than on process and its internal rewards, and having the conversations that might help make more of what we’re all working toward possible.