On Playing Professor, Being Comfortably Numb and the Really Real

You'd think that I would believe it by now. Here it is, nearly sixteen years since I earned my Ph.D. and took up a position as a professor. My students seem to believe it when they sit in my classes and come to me for advice. Some of them even call me "Professor" when they address me. So it must be true. Why is it, then, that every time my husband helps me update my home page photo, he has to remind me while we're doing the shoot, "You are a highly respected professor at a major university," so that I'll look the part? Ha. I looked at my photo just now so as to put in the link and I still don't believe it. Sure, she might be a "highly respected professor at a major university," but surely that can't be me.

So what if it is? How, exactly, is a "highly respected professor at a major university" supposed to feel? I know I feel faintly embarrassed every time someone introduces me for a talk: "Author of such-and-such, winner of this-or-that prestigious award." Again, not me. Or, rather, yes, me, but somehow still not. Me, the real me, is a welter of anxieties and doubts. She--that is, I haven't a clue about where my (as if) best thoughts come from; they don't really seem to belong to me, so why should I get awards for them? That woman standing up in front of the class? That's what other people, my colleagues, for example, do. I'm really still just a student, sitting in the back row, or maybe at the front. In any case, I'm the learner here, what do I know?

I want to know things; desperately, I do. I spend hours and hours, day after day, reading, trying to catch up, trying to know something so that I have something to teach or to write about. But there is never enough time and I have never read enough (or so it feels). And yet, people seem to expect me to have something to say. Sometimes they even seem to think that I have. Do I believe them? Do I then say something, anything, whatever comes into my mind that I would like to express? Oh, no, I don't have the authority. I'm not a great author like my teachers or colleagues. What they write or say is real; what I write or say is completely made up.

Which is, of course, the point. That's what authors do: make things up. Sure, they may take bits and pieces (a.k.a. "evidence") from elsewhere, but the shape that they give those bits and pieces is wholly their own. Even when it isn't very interesting to anybody else. Even when the only thing that they've done is make a list. Okay, this is not quite where I meant this post to go. What I've been thinking about the past several days is how it doesn't really matter whether I believe that I am a professor or not. The important thing, as my husband would say, is to act the part.

I'm actually somewhat okay with this when it comes to teaching. Teaching does feel a bit like acting and, if truth be told, I love being up there "on stage." I can act this material, sure thing. Because it doesn't really matter if I'm saying somebody else's lines (with proper citations, of course). The point about teaching is to convey the general knowledge of the field. Um. Actually, I do get a bit anxious when I think of it that way. Again, I'm never terribly sure that I know what "the general knowledge of the field" actually is. There are the things that I know, but what if there is something out there "in the field" that I don't? What if I am misleading my students about the state of the field and I don't really know what is going on out there myself?

Again, not what this post was supposed to be about, and yet context for it, nevertheless. You see, the only thing that I ever wanted to be was a scholar. I know, I know, I've written a lot these past few months about wanting to be a great novelist or some such, but I know that that's not me. What I want to be is a scholar, maybe not strictly speaking an historian, but nearer to that than anything else. I love hunting down references, learning things, putting the pieces together so that they make sense. I ask questions obsessively, wanting to know where my ideas come from, wanting to know why I think and believe the things that I do. The problem is, I never really believe my own answers.

No, again, that's not quite it. Yes, I do believe the answers that I come to about the limited questions I set. Is it that I am not confident in my ability to discover the facts? Again, yes, and yet still not quite it. Here's the insight that I had the other day that I'm trying to convey: it doesn't matter. It's not so much that I need to believe that I know what I know, as that I write as if I do--and that's fine. I tell my students this all the time: "Don't apologize, just say what you want to say. That is, after all, what your reader wants to hear." Okay, so I've known this for years; why is it particularly insightful now?

And isn't it curious how hard I am finding saying whatever it is that I want to say about being an academic? Try again. As you know if you've been reading my blog for any time at all, these past six or so months I've been caught in what if I weren't so hard on myself I really should dignify as a fairly long period of writer's block. Or maybe it's just that I finally gave in to the fears that have always beset me whenever I set out to write anything other than a diary or blog entry (and nowadays, sad to say, sometimes even my blog entries). In any case, the writing (other than for my blog, letters of reference, class preparations and other such ephemera) has not been happening.

It's been liberating in a way: I have let more deadlines pass without angst than ever in my life, but one day I really will have to write those book reviews and do something about the articles I've promised to produce. Because--and maybe this is what I've been trying to say--that, after all, is who I am. Or, at the very least, the part I am meant to play. It's my job to write those book reviews, just as it is my job to write those letters of reference. It needn't really be any reflection on me as such, I just need to dress up and play the part as well as I can. Argh! Words are such awkward things. No, that's not it again.

I really don't mean to imply that being an academic is all just an elaborate pretense. It's not, any more than being a doctor or an engineer or a manager or, indeed, a fencer. I really do have these skills, I really do know how to find out things and make arguments about them. And I really am anxious about whether I'm doing it right. But just because I'm anxious doesn't mean I shouldn't be doing this work; indeed, if I weren't so anxious, I sometimes wonder whether I would be able to do my job at all. One needs, after all, a certain degree of insecurity about one's knowledge to spend a lifetime improving it. But (she says, veering yet again slightly closer to the point of this whole ramble) I really needn't be quite so anxious about whether I'm doing the job as I should because....well, because why?

"Because," I'm thinking now, "I have the clothes for it." Not to mention the office, the books, the computer, the time. Okay, even I am losing interest in this post by now. Why is it taking me so long to say what it is that I initially thought that I wanted to say? Because I'm scared, of course. I'm scared that if I say it and it doesn't work, I'll be stuck in writer's block for who knows how many months more, and I'm really starting to worry about those deadlines again. I don't like missing deadlines. I believe in them; they are a matter of honor and respect. I just couldn't take the feelings of cold panic, the world going all stretched and anxious as it inevitably does when I sit down to write, any more. I needed a break from feeling like a failure every minute of every day I didn't produce something that counted. And here I am, hundreds of blog posts later, still panicked. Still stuck.

And yet, I really am a professor. Indeed, a highly respected professor at a major university. Who is living through something that may be the cocoon stage for a major breakthrough--or just the breakdown that so many of my colleagues have likewise experienced, the panic about writing The Second Book. Let's pretend. Let's pretend that I know how to write that book, that all it will take is sitting at my desk for a few hours every day for the next three or four years. That there is nothing really to worry about because putting words on the page is what I do.

Oh, if it were true. Oh, if it were possible to write without the gut-wrenching, mind-numbing anguish of whether I am getting everything right. Just get it down, there is nothing to think up. Wise words from Julia Cameron, and yet here I am. Pretending. Pretending to be the only thing I know how. Pretending to be the only thing I ever really wanted to be--and failing. No, not failing. How could I fail when this is who I am? It's not that I need to work harder in order to be a scholar. I am (perhaps this is the insight) a scholar more or less in spite of myself. Doomed, you might say. Everything else I might try to be is the pretense, not this.

"Everything," as Byron Katie would say, "is exactly as it should be." My writing this blog post. The questions I have about my scholarship. It is all part of the mysterious whole that is my work. Having these anxieties is part of my work just as surely as producing academic articles and books. No, that can't be it! If I were a real academic, like one of my former colleagues I can think of, I would just write. I would have published dozens of articles, half a dozen books, attended more conferences than I could count, have been out there, being the authority that I imagine myself wanting to be. Not stuck here on a blog wishing I were writing something else, anything other than yet another complaint about how hard it is to write what I most want to say.

So do it, write something else. Ah, yes. If only it were so easy. Maybe it is. Maybe all I have to do is have the courage to take that first step, put fingertips to keyboard and go. I am a professor, after all. It's what I do. It's what I've done. Who says it is not what I will be? It's curious, I don't really have much more that I can think of to say at the moment, but I am extremely reluctant to stop working on this post. I just know that if I can keep writing long enough, I will (as Professor Hunt says one does) figure out what it is that I am thinking.

Perhaps it is that there really isn't anything I need to change about myself or my writing; everything is exactly as it should be. This post that I am writing is what I should be writing now because it is what I am writing. And that's fine. It is as it should be. I am as I should be. My writing is as it should be. It is a beautiful morning, the sun is shining through the dining room windows, the puppy is asleep at my feet, I have a bit of a cold so it is hard for me to think as clearly as I would like. And that's fine. I am 45 years old, sixteen years out of my Ph.D. and having some serious doubts about the questions that we are asking in our field. And that's fine, too. Somebody has to have doubts, otherwise how will we ever change?

See, I do have something that I want to say, it's just so potentially destructive, I don't know where to start. Here we are, all of my colleagues and I, working so hard at producing the kinds of work that we have been taught and trained to produce, and it's straw. Or maybe just bricks. Okay, yes, bricks in "the Wall." I was listening to Pink Floyd for the first time in possibly decades as I drove home with my puppy from giving a talk last week about the work that I did last year on the Office of the Virgin, and suddenly I found myself in tears, comfortably numb in the mid-morning sunlight, wondering what my life would have been if I had taken a different path out of college and trained to be somebody else. Would I be having these doubts? Have I fulfilled my potential? Is this the person that I was meant to be? Are we the society that we are meant to be?

Too many layers. There are too many layers to what I am trying to write about here. Myself, my choices, but also the way in which we as a society view our purpose and ourselves. Roger Waters spitting into the face of a fan because he felt so crowded on stage. Our desire for fame. Our distrust of our own tradition ("We don't need no education"). Christianity as the enemy because of what Christians have done to each other and to those who do not believe in Christ as the Incarnate God. Our tradition as only one of humanity's many attempts to make sense of the world, if there is any sense to be made of the world. How to choose between the answers. Was Christ really God?

I had hoped in becoming a medieval historian to be able to come to some answers about some of these things, but I now find myself more adrift than ever. Yes, I have overcome (if that is the right word) my Calvinist upbringing, but what if Calvin is right? Worse, what if nobody is right? Or everybody? Multiple traditions, multiple truths, all equally true, all equally contingent. Is there any point in having faith? Is the reality that we are sinful or saved? Both or neither? What is the point in proving anything about what people believed in the past? Why do we even care, unless we believe now? No, I don't believe in spiritual exercises any more, not as a necessity, in any case. But neither do I think we actually understand anything as scholars about true devotion, so long, that is, as we talk about devotion as if it were simply a kind of practice.

How does the song go? "When I was a child / I caught a fleeting glimpse / Out of the corner of my eye. I turned to look but it was gone / I cannot put my finger on it now / The child is grown / The dream is gone / I ... have become comfortably numb." I used to care. I used to care so much about recapturing that moment, that glimpse of something more. Now, part of me is content to recognize that the moment is now, there is nothing more, I don't need to search any more, and part of me is weeping for the hope that I have lost that there might be answers to the dream. Do I sound like an 80s rock song now? Profound and yet vapid, hinting at depths that might or might not be there.

See? I really haven't grown up. I'm still that child, still looking out of the corner of my eye for something, anything that might point me to reality. My puppy is doing a good job of helping me; she is the definition of magic, her little body so strong and soft, her will and energy so real. She sees the world, I am convinced, as it really is: that bush there a precious hide-out, that twig a toy, that bird a glimpse of heaven itself. What do scholarly arguments have to do with such moments? Again, there is no secret to be uncovered, only the reality that is right here before our eyes. "Look no further," it is telling us, "I am here."

I have no idea how I am going to write about all of this, other than in the way I am gibbering about it here. Do you see? Don't you see? There really isn't anything to strive for, we have it all right here and now. Yes, I did perhaps too many drugs in college, but this is more powerful than anything I ever experienced "high." That was counterfeit, this, this is real. And shattering. Centuries of tradition and argument, gone in a puff of smoke, poof, like the sound one's Mac makes when emptying the trash. All approximations to the truth, or not even approximations. Counterfeits. Veils. Gropings in the dark. Except insofar as they are all already saying exactly the same thing.

You've heard this before, right? It's the mantra of our age. Does that mean it's wrong? Are we not simply caught in a cultural moment which later generations will see as just as limited as we (stereotypically) imagine the Middle Ages to have been? And yet, there are truths that those alive then captured or expressed that we are only now returning to. Aquinas vs. Calvin on the nature of the real. Chesterton and Tolkien knew it: "Only through the reality of the world can the mind, according to Thomas, reach out to otherness and become the object."* Yes! The world is real, the world matters, and thinking about the world makes us real. That seems true enough. So why is it so difficult to say?

So many centuries of doubt when the answers were there all along. Cutting open animals while still alive in the belief that there were simply unfeeling machines, failure to see the magic in their eyes. What is this world that we have created for ourselves, a world of anger and alienation, sin and estrangement? What if we are able to heal the rift that opened in our culture with the Reformation? Will we then be able to see the Truth? Or is Christianity's truth only a myth that we must outgrow as well? No, that's not really my question. And yet, I fear that it is. Did God really become incarnate and walk among us? Is there a God other than the Really Real of existence? Or is existence itself an illusion, as the Buddhists teach?

I am truly gibbering now. The Wall is gone, I have no more ground to stand upon. I needed the Wall to give me boundaries and now I have none. What is the point about arguing whether we should or should not be devoted to the Virgin Mary? Either we are and we praise her, or we aren't and she is simply a cultural construct for us. Devotion simply is, it has no logic other than love. Is the universe cold and unfeeling as some would insist or is it vibrant with love as others would say? I think I feel that love when I am standing in the sunlight with my puppy, just being in the moment, not wanting anything other than to be there, watching her. It is crushing, overwhelming, undemanding, free.

How am I supposed to organize this feeling into an argument? I can't. I don't need to. It's what every artist knows and yet can express only in part, only in the moment of creation, in the hope that others might see. Oh, but I do want to write about it, better than I am managing to do here. Or is this good enough? Have I shown you enough for you to catch a glimpse of it, too? Look! It's right there.

*Alison Milbank, Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians: The Fantasy of the Real (London: T&T Clark, 2009), p. 17.


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