On shame and defeat

From the dirty old mess hall, you march to the brick wall
Too weary to talk and too tired to sing
And it’s all afternoon you remember your home town
All inside the walls, the walls of Red Wing

–B. Dylan

Those are often my sentiments and the feeling of incarceration and longing for home should be paid attention even though we are not actually at a reformatory. The Wikipedia article on shame (like many other Wikipedia articles, say what you will) is quite good. I am nearly paralyzed by this emotion, disabled by it, since Reeducation, I discern; shame is the name of the problem and I should study its workings.

I came to this conclusion by meditating on the defeated feeling we get in the offices. There is no way I can see to make these classes work, because we have no power over them (there are reasons for that I do not have space to discuss here). That is one element in the defeat, and the shame. I do not want to talk to anyone who is at another institution because this reality is so alien it is hard to describe, for one thing, and for another, because I am too ashamed at the way we are treated to talk to anyone, too broken-down. Antidote, perhaps: be angry instead. (“Don’t mourn, organize.”)

Hyperbole: These classes as we are required to give them are meaningless busywork for ourselves and the students and their primary purpose may be to fund the graduate program. But we do not have enough graduate students and are trying to recruit them from among the secondary school teachers. We must produce these PhDs so that the university can maintain its Carnegie category. Where WE are in all of this, and what we are doing for US today, are pertinent questions here, but the answer is: we must help the university maintain its Carnegie category so that we retain the right to exist and ideally, to improve. And the key to injecting meaning into all of this is to make these beginning classes over which we have no power work, but we cannot do this because we have no power over them, and we have no power over them because if they worked they would be more challenging and the language requirement would be cancelled. Therefore the current uncomfortable stasis must be maintained, whereby we entrap unhappy language requirement students to fund the education of PhD candidates we entrap. Have you ever heard of a PhD program that was a service PhD program, i.e. that existed primarily to serve a purpose like maintaining the university’s Carnegie category?  This is a distorted, pessimistic reading of the situation but it contains elements of truth, most notably the theme of doing impractical busywork so as to retain the right to exist, as opposed to doing meaningful work and growing.

The related feeling of defeat comes from certain very tedious committee work, and I am typically far too burdened with this and with having to be in contact with the wars over the freshman sequence. It is not a question of time, it is that so much of the work is so draining and degrading — not because of what it is, or because we do not value it, but because it is not valued and we are not.

I remember coming home from a different job, after a long commute, and someone waiting who had just cleaned the house asked why I could possibly be in such a good mood after such a long day and long drive. I said well, the day was interesting and energizing, the drive was relaxing, it is nice to be home, and the house looks lovely, how can I not be in a good mood?

I was talking to a colleague today after the tedious meeting, about the general strangeness of the situation. He is in another department. A key difference between him and me is that he has complete control of his courses, including any freshman courses. This is something I must clearly find a way to get.

The other thing I notice from today is how other-oriented I am now. My job drains me so that I do not have thoughts of my own left, so I listen to other interesting lives … partly because I come to feel that I am not myself worthy, but also in the hope that if I listen, and remember what interesting lives are like, I may once again feel interesting enough myself to have one.

(Yesterday, however, in an unusual event I won a medium sized award at the university. and it is amazing how different it made me feel. It is the kind of recognition many people, in many departments, get much more regularly, but that we rarely do. The idea that one might have value, that one’s work might have value. The relief of recognition: having someone else say that. Not having to be the only person to say that to oneself.)

I am not sure what to do even though I know the mottos: be good to yourself and ask what I can do for ME today. What makes it so difficult to do these things? Reviewing here we have several elements: the feeling of incarceration and also isolation; the shame; the defeated feeling (which comes from not fully recognizing how outrageous the obstacles we have are, and not fully recognizing that these really are imposed and not self-created).

Don’t mourn, organize. I should decide to be angry at being blocked and obstructed, rather than ashamed at neither managing to overcome this nor to come to love it (as in, coming to love Big Brother). I tend not to defend my own life nearly enough, on the one hand; I also tend not to give myself enough credit for how beaten down we are, on the other.

In other words, we are mistreated and non-supported and we should recognize this and resist. Those in power say we do not understand that things have to be this way (they do not), and want us to think we bring the chaotic situation upon ourselves or we do not deserve better. (I know where that idea comes from, and just the other day I was telling a colleague he should not allow that entity to have such power in his psyche.)

One needs a way to recover, space for recovery as opposed to saying, as I do: now go onto the next thing (as if everything were all right). There are several ways to escape but not enough ways to recover, and the distinction between escaping and recovering is very important although not always easy to discern.

Here is the last conundrum: one of the best defenses is research and writing. Yet our daily life erodes the characteristics we need to undertake these in a sustained way. Those things are our defenses yet they also need defenses, and we must make our lives richer.



1 Comment

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One response to “On shame and defeat

  1. Z

    What has come to me psychoanalytically from this meditation: I have “fear of success” … Erikson’s 3d stage … being a person, being independent, hurts my parents (we know I have that issue) but it is also that to succeed professionally would be disloyal. It would upset their beliefs about themselves, the world, me, and everything that is right (it is too vulgar, it is for people who have to work for a living, and so on). Hmmm … I wonder if the logic is, in order to succeed I have to see their defects, and that is unacceptable (YES this is true on several levels and is right under my nose).

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