Something to be taken to heart

October 23, 2011 ‘Getting to Clear’ By William Pannapacker

Fall is a remorseful season for an academic. Most people make resolutions for New Year’s Day; academics usually wait till the beginning of summer. Every May, I resolve to complete all of the essays and reviews that I failed to deliver during the academic year. Then I’ll finish the administrative reports that will be due in September. I’ll even clean out my e-mail in box and give feedback to everyone who sold me something on eBay. And then, having cleared my desk—except for three summer courses—I will resume work on my long-overdue book. For reasons I will explain, I call this process “getting to clear.” I first heard that phrase about 20 years ago from a friend—let’s call him Steve—who worked in multilevel marketing (or sales careers based on recruiting other sellers). He attended a lot of motivational seminars and listened repeatedly to recordings of books such as How to Win Friends and Influence People and The Power of Positive Thinking. For a while he was into Dianetics by L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology. As I understood it, the big idea in that book was to remove all your painful memories because they sap your energy and prevent you from being effective and happy. Steve kept saying that he was “getting to clear,” which is Scientology lingo that meant, more and more, he was fully in the moment, and not only that, the moment was increasingly subject to his mental control. Working from a table outside a shopping mall, Steve could push cellphone accounts on passers-by with a manic, smiling intensity that was almost frightening to behold. He could switch it off, too, like some kind of Tesla-inspired, anti-gravity device, to explain what he was doing so that I could imitate it and earn more commissions. Reality was something created by our minds, Steve said. Once he was “clear”—and living fully in the present moment—he would be able to “manifest” anything he desired. He said he could visualize customers lining up, and they simply would appear, in greater and greater numbers. In sales, you just have to believe, and then you can have anything you want, developing your mental powers—the will to succeed—by increments. That belief struck me as odd at the time, and it still does. Sort of like thinking you could learn to fly like Superman by leaping out of airplanes with smaller and smaller parachutes. On the other hand, some of those ideas seem to descend from respected thinkers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Friedrich Nietzsche. Following Emerson’s gospel of self-reliance, Steve was on his way to becoming an Übermensch among the Willy Lomans. Of course I think that acting like the material world is a mental construct—and that people are manifestations of your will—is going too far, but who can doubt the value of liberating yourself from the past so you can be more effective in the present? Why drag around a chain of regrets like the ghost of Jacob Marley? Once you have completed your overdue obligations and done your best to repair the “errata” of your life, as the printer Benjamin Franklin called them, why not embrace the present, completely. As counterculture gurus said back in the ’60s, if you want to be happy, you need to “Be here now!” I have met some famous academics who are like that. And not in a spacey way. They have presence: You are introduced. You shake hands. Eye contact is made. And you suddenly get the feeling that you have been pulled into an alternate reality that they have created, and that now includes you. You are the only two people in the room; you are being seen, completely, almost uncomfortably—you feel like your inner self is being exposed—and you are torn between fully engaging with that presence or shielding yourself from it and breaking away as soon as possible. It is safer to hide among people who are too distracted to interfere with the way you are constructing yourself in the present, too lost amid contending trivialities to cultivate the searing perceptiveness that is needed for field-changing insights and the transformative work of teaching. We worry so much about how we are being perceived that we are unable to perceive anything outside of ourselves. Being fully present to other people and fully open to new ideas—cultivating an undistracted, selfless focus—may be the hardest thing for an academic to do, and the most important. That is difficult for many reasons, and some of those reasons are built into the nature of academic work. For historians of various kinds, long-dead people can become more familiar companions than our living friends and relatives. But even in fields in which you are constantly pursuing the cutting edge, trying to develop new theories and technologies, you must constantly evaluate your work in relation to what has been done before. Our profession is built on footnotes and bibliographies. We need to be precise about our contributions to the field. But that process can become so painstaking and retrospective that writing spontaneously—with fewer and fewer footnotes—can feel like discovering the power of unaided human flight. It is hard for academics to live in the present because nearly all of us lead lives of deferred gratification. It is an inherent condition of the academic path from childhood forward. Instead of playing, we studied. Instead of partying, we cultivated mentors. When our contemporaries began careers and families, we remained in school, spending our 20s in relative poverty and uncertainty, thinking all the time of how we’d be better off at some point in our 30s. The present is a depreciated form of currency for most academics; we live in anticipation of a future when our accomplishments and sacrifices will be recognized—finally. No doubt, many academics choose the scholarly life because it promises a kind of lifelong sojourn at Walden Pond where we can think deep thoughts because we are protected from the piddling details of other ways of life. But the reality is closer to E.B. White’s description of a typical day at his farm, in an essay called “Memorandum” from One Man’s Meat: “Today I should carry the pumpkins and squash from the back porch to the attic. The nights are too frosty to leave them outdoors any longer.” But first he must respond “to a publisher who wrote me asking what happened to the book manuscript I was supposed to turn in a year ago last spring.” And since he needs to go to the post office, he “should take the green chair in the living room to Eliot Sweet so that he can put in some little buttons that keep coming out all the time.” By the time White’s “to do” list is done, he realizes, “I’ve been spending a lot of time here typing, and I see it is four o’clock already and almost dark, so I had better get going. Specially since I ought to get a haircut while I am at it.” It only gets worse as you accumulate administrative responsibilities. Not long ago I attended a workshop on academic leadership that included a session on setting priorities. The session’s panelists advised categories for organizing your time: Some things are urgent and important (attend to those today); others are not urgent but important (attend to those tomorrow); and many things are not important (attend to those not at all). The challenge is deciding how to sort life into those categories. Fires get extinguished, but personal letters go unanswered and books do not get written. Things do not leave your conscience simply because you have recategorized them as unimportant. “But there is always next summer,” we tell ourselves, “and then I will catch up.” I’ve read that older people—including some academics, I assume—are much more content with their lives. They have accepted their place in the hierarchy of institutions and affiliations; they can reflect on their accomplishments and focus on the things they really care about. They are finally undertaking the career they envisioned back in their 20s. I remember one of my oldest graduate-school professors, well into his 80s, riding his bicycle to the university, spending most days reading and typing away in his office, the door of which was almost always open to visitors. A few of us can look forward to that, I think, if we’re not adjuncts. And then we’ll finally catch up. But one of my colleagues here at Hope College—let’s call her Natalie (for that, happily, is her name)—said something to me that I’ll never forget: “You can’t spend your career looking forward to doing something else.” In other words, once September arrives, instead of embracing the academic year, the return of the usual routine, we feel like divers inhaling deeply before a plunge into dark water. We look forward to surfacing with the return of summer, but then summer comes, and we find that nothing has really changed: just a new configuration of responsibilities. It’s never going to be perfect, but you have to find a way to make the most of what you are doing today. Perhaps a better way of describing this goal than “getting to clear” is the Quaker notion of finding “peace at the center”—a state of serenity or stillness of spirit in which one is no longer worried about the past or the future. In other words, stop trying to “get” anywhere, just “be clear now,” not next May, or 20 years from now, when you retire, because things won’t be different then, either.

 

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