The Death of Dreams

This is probably one of those posts that should never be written or, perhaps better, written only never to be posted, but I'm finding that if I don't let myself write about (and post) some of the things that have been depressing me lately, I may never write again, so here goes. I hate my life. No, that's not true. I love my life. I love my husband and son. I love the home that we have made together. I love my job, both teaching and doing research. I love living in a city with so much energy and diversity. I love my friends. I even, believe it or not, love fencing. So why am I so depressed?

My friends at fencing are getting the worst of it. Well, again, not quite true. My husband and son are getting the worst of it, but my friends at fencing shouldn't have to suffer through it as well. Every other practice lately I end up in tears. I had to tell my coach yesterday that I simply couldn't do a lesson; what would be the point? I'm not getting any better. Even beginners who have been fencing only a few months are better than I am at getting the touch. I have no idea why I even try. I suck and I am going to suck, no matter what I do. So there.

My coach says that he can help me, but only if I tell him what my goals are. He asks: "Do you want to make the national team? [Not a possibility until I'm over 50, but never mind.] Do you want to make top eight at Nationals? What is it that you want to do?" Ha. If only. If never. I will never make the national veterans' team; there are simply too many women in my age bracket who have been fencing since they were in high school or college for me even to have the ghost of a chance to be anything other than middling against them. It's never going to happen. Make top eight in one of our veteran events? Again, never going to happen. I suck. I can't improve. I'm exactly the same as I ever was.

And so forth. So why not just enjoy the fencing for what it is: great exercise plus a chance to hang out with some people whose company I enjoy? Um. Because that would mean, to my mind, giving up? Let's translate this into something that actually matters, not a sport, but my career. I am an associate professor at a top-ranked university in one of the top departments in my field. Success, right? You'd think. Except, in context, it simply doesn't feel like it. Yes, I got tenure, but almost all of the men in my department who are my age (give or take a year) are now not only tenured, but full professors (read, both more prestige and more money), some even with named chairs. And the women? Oh, so you don't believe in the glass ceiling either, do you? Neither did I.

Whose fault is this anyway? Some would say I'm right on track: here I am working on my second book. Since I got tenure, I've had a number of articles published in prestigious, peer-reviewed journals; I've co-edited a well-received volume; I've had teaching awards; I apparently have the respect of my peers. All I need to do now is keep working and everything will fall into place, right? Except I don't believe this anymore. And that is what this post is really about: my loss of faith in my dreams. "Get real," I'm telling myself. "You're ordinary. Nothing particularly special, just like that kid back in college told you after you got that A [or was it an A-?] from a teacher whom everybody agreed was one of the hardest graders in the department: 'You're not really that bright, you just work hard.'" No spark, no genius, just sweat. So I've dragged myself this far up the ladder on the strength of sheer stubbornness, but clearly (or so it feels) that's all I have: stubbornness.* And it's taken me as far as it's going to, full stop.

I know I only have myself to blame, but I'm not sure at the moment what exactly I've done wrong. Well, again, not quite true. I know exactly what I'm doing wrong in spiritual terms: making my treasure on earth, not in heaven. Expecting to feel better if I get more attention (more readers, more students, an external job offer that I then might negotiate into a promotion and raise--it's how my colleagues do it), when thinking like this will only ever make me feel worse. Thomas Merton put it well: "The logic of earthly success rests on a fallacy: the strange error that our perfection depends on the thoughts and opinions and applause of other men! A weird life it is, indeed, to be living always in somebody else's imagination, as if that were the only place in which one could at last become real!"**

If only I could find the wherewithal to somehow let go! Then maybe I could rejoice with all of my colleagues for the promotions that they have received (and that I am increasingly convinced I won't), for the houses that their salaries have enabled them to buy (ditto), for the vacations and research trips they are able to take with their families (ditto), for the success of their careers while mine stays where it is until I retire. But--and here's the real question--why am I so convinced that this is going to be the case? My mother will tell me I need to practice looking on the bright side, but (as I hope I've shown above) it really isn't that I am not aware of the bright side: my family, our home, our city, my friends. What I've lost is the sense of myself as being a high achiever.

No, I really don't expect you to feel sorry for me at this point. I'm embarrassed enough at feeling so sorry for myself. What difference does it make if I am not the best? I still have a good life--a very good life! Surely I've won enough already. Nobody wins everything, after all, not even in their own field. Again, I can hear my mother responding: "You don't need to be the best at anything for me to love you. Why do you push yourself so hard? Your husband and son love you; you have a job, a home, friends. Just be happy with what you have. Everything doesn't have to be a competition."

About those goals that my coach was pressing me to define. I don't expect to be one of the best women fencers my age; I'm pretty clear about that. What I would like is to have the sense that I have actually improved; that all the work that I've put in over the past six years has actually meant something; that even if I never take first place, I might actually be able to place a bit higher year by year (which, thus far, I haven't). Likewise, with my career: I'm never going to be Elaine Scarry or Judith Butler or Martha Nussbaum. Fine. But it would be nice not to feel that my best writing is all behind me and instead that there is something actually still to hope for in building my career (which, at the moment, it doesn't seem like there is).

There's a part of me that wonders, every so often, whether what I'm experiencing is, in fact, a temptation. By which I mean, an honest-to-goodness diabolical intervention: the Enemy tempting me to despair. Perhaps I am on the edge of an extraordinary breakthrough, whether in my fencing or in my writing, and the Devil knows it and wants me to give up. It certainly feels like this at times, when, to try to cheer myself back up, I am making the kinds of lists that my mother suggests I should and yet nothing I can say makes any difference to the way that I feel. And then I am back in the pit, gnawing over the way in which my institution awards promotions, raging against myself for not being able to see how best to make an attack.

Interestingly, I've stayed fairly calm while writing this post. Thus far, no tears. Which, among other things, tells me that I'm still holding something back. If only an angel would show up and tell me what it is God wants me to do.

*Like a Missouri mule, as my mother likes to say. I was born in St. Louis.
**The Seven Storey Mountain (Orlando: Harcourt, 1948, 1998), p. 362.


  1. A poem by Almedia Knight:


    Give yourself
    The gift of lowered expectation,
    Accept life and its messiness,
    You can’t amend
    Nor wish it away, so
    Lower the bar, so
    All can walk under, for
    What it is
    Is what it is.

    Good theory, I know, but application? Will keep trying


  2. Thanks, Badger, that's a good poem. You know, the thing is I'm really sick of feeling this way, like a failure even when I'm rationally certain that I'm not. Whom to blame? Myself, for setting the bar too high? My father, for insisting over and over again that I (and my siblings) were so smart, if only we would put our heads together, we would make a million dollars? Our culture, for feeding us a constant diet of "success stories" cast as inspirational anecdotes but in fact temptations to the seduction of fame? All of the above? I wish I knew.

  3. I think it is largely cultural. Reading Buddhist literature, this year, and studying the Yoga Sutras, I have become more aware of my own unquestioned assumptions. About the desirability of striving, the need to try and try and try in order to perfect oneself. I have been meditating often on the last passage of the sutra on the full awareness of breathing: the impermanence of all things, non-attachment, letting go, and cessation. In the brief moments I can accept those things, it seems I have more space to relax and accept myself as is.

    I have not yet got the hang of remembering these things while amped up on adrenaline, flying backwards down the strip....

  4. I suspect a large part of the sense of discontent that you describe is just a result of the ever-advancing goalposts of the ambitious. It may not always be fun to live through that feeling, but that feeling is *precisely* the reason why highly accomplished people are driven to achieve. I know when I started fencing, all I wanted was to achieve a rating, any rating, even if I never went any further than that. But after I got that rating, I wanted the next one -- just that one more, really, then I'll be happy, I swear! Etcetera. :-) Fencing can be particularly maddening like that, since not only does every bout start 0-0 but also most of the faces are familiar friends one desperately wants to try to prove all over again that one can outfence on this new day, today, no matter what happened yesterday. Years ago my first coach once told me not to envy the best fencers too much since they were all a little off in the head, and that tormented drive was what drove them to the accomplishments I envied so much!

  5. Oh regarding the fencing plateau: First, you're fortunate to have a coach who cares to hear your goals and understands how important it is to define them clearly. Second, if patience and hard work haven't allowed the clog to dislodge naturally, is it possible there's any reasonable change in your training that could be helpful? More tournaments, fewer tournaments, more conditioning or cross-training, less cross-training, rotating among coaches, visiting neighboring clubs to free-fence with some new faces? Or... a new weapon? LOL -- I kid, I kid... but when I plateau'd in foil I thought long and hard about the technical origins of my problems and decided to switch to epee. Presto, I shot up two ratings within six months, after years of stagnation. ;-)

  6. Re: plateau. Alas, alas, it didn't work: I started epee a year ago, but no great breakthrough there either. But you are totally right about the moving wall of ambition. My coach tries to encourage me by telling me that he knows I will get my B if I just do what he tells me to do, whereas I've mainly given up thinking I'll ever even manage to get a C. I'd just like to be able to renew my D before it expires.


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