Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Misery and Choice

We often make ourselves miserable.

I was reading through a book on writing dissertations--David Sternberg's How to Complete and Survive a Doctoral Dissertation--and it struck me how much of a presumption he was making about misery.

In general, I thought the book had a lot of good suggestions, for all that parts of it are quite dated (it was published almost 30 years ago). But the emphasis on what a trauma the dissertation process is seems to me over the top. For example he says “American Society is not aware, excepting personal acquaintance of particular ABDs, of the almost larger-than-life trials, fortitude, despair, courage and even heroics experienced in writing a doctoral dissertation.” Forgive me for saying, but I don't take this seriously. And I am quite familiar with the despair of the dissertation writer, having spent six years as an ABD doctoral candidate.

I refer to the work of Viktor Frankl, and his notion that we can find meaning even in our suffering, and that this meaning supports us. Frankl survived the Nazi concentration camps. Compared to that, writing a dissertation is an absolute blessing.

If you're actually writing a dissertation, chances are you have options in your life. Chances are you're not worrying where you're going to get your next meal. Chances are you're not worrying about where you're going to sleep tomorrow night. And chances are that you can get a job if you need one. Now in that context, it may take a huge commitment of effort and will to wrie an entire dissertation. And it may strain you--even push you towards the limits of what you had accomplished in the past. But do those things make the writing heroic? Is it the kind of situation in which despair is appropriate?

I think not. Obviously we have emotional reactions. Obviously, if we have worked hard and our work is rejected, or even rejected harshly, that is terribly difficult to handle. But this is a matter of choice. We can choose to continue, or we can choose to leave the dissertation behind. We are not condemned to writing our dissertation.

On the first level, then, I think it's important for the dissertation writer who is concerned with the agony of writing to remember that this is a choice to work on the dissertation. If it is making you miserable, and if writing the dissertation condemns you to years of writing misery, then why do it? And if you have a good answer as to why to do it, then can't you try to focus on the good things that you'll get out of the effort that you think is miserable?

There's a second level: we can choose whether or not to be miserable. I think this is the ultimate lesson of Frankl's story: he had every right to be miserable--real physical hardship, pain, emotional loss, separation from family, fear of death--but he claims that he chose something else. He argues that we always have the power to choose how we respond--by creating meaning, we mediate and shape our responses. In a way, it's almost as simple as saying that if you sit down to write telling yourself how miserable it is, then it will be miserable; and if you sit down telling yourself it will be rewarding, then it may well be rewarding.

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