Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The Curtains of Misery

I was talking with a writer who spoke about her work as if it were nothing but misery to work on her dissertation. And yet this same writer had had some very good responses to her ideas at some panel discussions and in interactions with scholars that she respected. It was as if her entering the place of study, she was draped with a curtain of misery that hung over the project.

I believe that we can change how we interact with our situations and our adversities. This is the main premise of Viktor Frankl's Logotherapy. It is a basic premise behind cognitive behavioral therapy and behind Neuro-Linguistic programming. Indeed, it is the basic premise behind many sorts of therapy: therapy by definition attempts to relieve a disorder--physiotherapy changes how our bodies respond (for example our leg might have to re-learn how to bear weight); psychotherapy changes how we respond. The question is whether we can effect such changes on our own. Frankl clearly believes we can.

I believe that one major cause that we get caught under the curtains of misery is that we lose touch with a sense of purpose. If we no longer believe that our work is meaningful--if we are asking ourselves "what am I doing this for anyway?", then we are likely to be miserable. If our work is meaningless, then we might as well be retyping a telephone book into the computer. If the work is meaningless, what's the difference? If the work serves no purpose it is no more than drudgery (perhaps worse--at least as a drudge you're doing something practical).

Of course writing a dissertation is hard. But it ought not be viewed as hardship. Realistically, if you are writing a dissertation you are knocking on the door of a social elite--stories of PhDs driving taxis notwithstanding, I'd be happy to bet that the average PhD makes more than the average non-PhD, even presuming that the richest people don't have PhDs. It is a tremendous opportunity. And yet it is so often a hardship, too.

I am not denying the emotional strains faced by the dissertation writer, but there are two sides to every story. I know that the writer I mentioned at the beginning of this post faced/faces very real stress; what seems most important to me is finding a way to reliever her--and those like her--of the stress, or at least of a great deal of it. I know that for her a large part of the stress stems from the moments where she is saying to herself: "my material doesn't really matter"; if I respond to that statement by saying "but what Dr. X who asked you to co-write a book chapter," I can hear her mood shift. It reminds her that there is a meaning that she herself sees.

I'm not of the opinion that we should base our own beliefs on whether other people approve of those beliefs. But I am of the opinion that we can learn a lot from other people, and if someone I respect thinks something is important, that's a very good justification for me to explore whether I want to take that thing seriously, too.

Anyway, the short of this is that the better we develop a sense of purpose--especially one that is in alignment with our deep emotions, beliefs and values--the more that we are able throw off the curtains of misery and remember that our work--whatever its difficulties--is valuable.

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