one hand clapping

July 29, 2009

i’ve previously discussed the various enduring existential crises surrounding my decision to leave grad school for the “real” world. but today i came across an older post from elsewhere that reminded me of part of why that decision was so painful:

But the truth, I think, is that part of what’s so painful about “leaving” academia is that we usually aren’t leaving by choice. More often, academia is leaving us, and all we’re doing is having to slowly come to the point of acknowledging that we’ve been left alone in this big apartment full of books, maybe with a cat or two, and a big pile of bills on the counter. Academia, that bastard; he just up and walked one day, and it took us a while to realize he wasn’t going to come back. 

the main thread of this post doesn’t really apply to me – i walked away because i couldn’t deal with teaching, for the most part, not because i couldn’t find a job – but the language she employs struck me hard.

the great epiphany – the decision to leave – was enormously traumatic for me. and, as you do, i spent a lot of time talking to my closest friends about it. at the same time, another friend of long standing, sleaze, was breaking up with her long-term boyfriend. poor bug had to deal with the two of us falling to pieces at the same time. but from this position, she was able to cast the situation in a new light that helped me come to terms with it: sleaze and i were essentially going through the same thing.

bug and i came to talk about this time period as the point where i “divorced myself.” essentially, i had to accept that the image of myself i had always held–of myself as an academic, of myself as a student–was no longer truly valid. as with an intense breakup, i had to work my mind around to understanding that the future i had envisioned was not going to happen. i had to pick up the pieces and try to figure out who i would be now that that relationship, that image, had died.

and while that initial period of intense crisis has passed, the broader problem hasn’t. i’ve spent the last three years trying to figure out who i am, now that i’m no longer that person i thought i would be. if i am no longer defined by my status as a student, then what does define me? certainly not my jobs. but how long can i continue on the way that i have, making deprecating noises about my employment while claiming that it’s not what i really want? what if i never figure out what i want? at what point do i stop pretending that there’s some definable career goal in my future and accept that i might be just another semi-satisfied white collar worker?

i suppose that this comes down to how i define myself: i know that my job is not all that i am, but how do i go about figuring out how to build a new image of myself? i want so many things that, ultimately, i want nothing. i’ve spent the past three years drifting, trying just to figure out which way to go. i have no drive or purpose. i can’t focus; i can’t plan. and without a plan, i’m frozen in place, paralyzed by uncertainty. 

i read history blogs and am sad because that isn’t me; because i don’t have the time or resources anymore to be able to write like that; because they’re showing me glimpses of the world that might have been. more than any single person, academia shaped my idea of myself. all my life, no matter what else happened, i was a Good Student. it was the only way i knew to describe myself, the only thing i was comfortable being proud of (even a little arrogant). and now that i’ve divorced myself, now that the dominant relationship of my life has broken down, i’m left shattered, unable to figure out who i am outside of school. 

i don’t have a point here, or a conclusion. in fact, the very rambly nature of this post is indicative of my mindset these days. i’m just saying – these are the things i think about.



  1. if you’ll permit me to toss about assumptions at will, the very nature of your life experience has long made it difficult if not impossible to define yourself. you are between siblings, between classes, between world views. one half blue collar and one half white collar. one half academic and one half corporate hack. one half historical non-fiction and one half trashy romance novel. hell, even a little bit country, a little bit rock and roll. always participating in both while belonging to neither. and it sucks when you don’t belong.

    for a long time, you felt like you belonged to the world of learning. yet it seems like at some point after you realized that the academic *image* you had of yourself was no longer valid, you began to believe that your own *self* was no longer valid, by extension.

    when you divorced yourself you weren’t left with nothing, despite the fact that it may feel that way. i don’t know. maybe at some point you have to stop looking for yourself and just *be*. concentrate on what you are. revel in the fact that you are indefinable. incategorizable. unbelongable. capable of beating the tar out of me for committing grammar felony by making up those last two words right there.

    good luck, man.

    • i hear what you’re saying, and i don’t disagree. but i’m not very good at just going with things; i feel like i need to *know* who i am, i can’t just *be.* i feel like i need my life to be about something other than going to work every day and hanging out with my friends at night. i feel like my personality is made up of so many disparate parts that i can’t unite them into a functional whole, so i just bounce around like a pinball from one day to the next.

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