Episode 5: Slowing Down

My old life was about racing the clock all day. It was about constantly working to understand new challenging material, then trying to put it into a form that could be approached and discussed with students, then preparing to “perform it” in an engaging sort of audience-participation play in the classroom . . . for multiple consecutive hours a day. And then I’d barely eat, barely sleep, and do it all again the next day with a new set of ideas . . . but with whom? With students who were texting, spaced out, sleeping, hung over, high. Students who hadn’t read anything to prepare for class. Students whose only question was “do we have to know this?” It was utterly exhausting. I was alone. Perhaps they were depressed. Perhaps they lacked interest. Perhaps they were home-sick. Perhaps . . . but it did not work. Education under these conditions did not function. I felt like my life’s energies were going down a drain.

At the same time, the course-designing, prepping, teaching, and endless grading and commenting on impossible-to-read papers (immediately thrown in the garbage without even reading my painstaking comments on comprehension, logic, critical thinking, and grammar) was just one third of my duties. “Service” took up the rest of my waking hours. Ah “service” . . . lots and lots of uncompensated work unequally distributed among faculty, mainly handed to those who are too new to say no, and anyone who showed some level of “care” for the workings of the college. Research, writing, publishing would always get the back-seat, though they were considered the most important part of an academic career by most employers. Every holiday and summer break would be spent doing nine months of research that could not be touched during the school year.

Telling this story is like a PTSD trigger.

I feel my blood pressure rising, my heart beating fast, hot under the collar. But, whereas I used to be thrown into fight mode by that feeling, get motivated, get a fire set under my ass, now I find myself glazing over, feeling frozen, feeling nauseated. I can’t live like that anymore. To survive . . . to do more than survive, to “live” again, I’m trying to learn how to slow down.

I’m not sure I have any experience with slowing down. I have spent my whole life in high-stress patterns, from the competitive, and often abusive sports of my youth, to college and grad school (self-abuse, one might say), to an academic job. This burnout is many years in the making. So, I can only describe some basic facts of slowing down right now. It means this: Making press pot coffee in the morning. Slow coffee. It means making my breakfast, instead of picking up a drive-through greasy breakfast sandwich. It means taking my dog to the park and breathing real air, instead of dropping him at doggie day care, and closing myself up in my office. It means that when I have a creative impulse, I can pursue it. It means that I can go to lunch with a friend. On short notice!! Maybe this all seems rather trivial, but it is extremely profound for me. I sense a little bit of life returning. There is a world. I can connect with people I love. I haven’t felt this for a long time. I have lived according to a strict regiment for so long. I almost feel guilty and lazy about slowing down. That is a hard feeling to shake. Should I be embarrassed for taking back my life? Am I being selfish? Am I being narcissistic? Am I being indulgent? I think these thoughts reveal a strange ethic that does not foster balance and health. I’m not sure where it comes from. It may have been the fuel for professional success, but it has never made me healthy and happy. Sticking with this old way, this old mindset, this old habitual way of being, means further isolation, further illness, further depression, further collapse.

I’m beginning to see that the risk is not in leaving this old life, this old job, this old professional status. The risk is in staying.