On Worthiness and Lack Thereof

Coming down from the adrenaline high of an in-person lecture, combined with finally having had something to eat, I am now semi-comatose and thus the evening work shift cannot yet begin. Hence, a blog post!

***

Regarding the fine art of not giving a f*ck and all that.

I wonder how life is for my very confident colleagues. It must be awesome to never second-guess whether or not they were supposed to speak, whether they were annoying, whether people looked at them askance, whether they looked/sounded stupid, whether people wanted them to leave or shut up.

Some days are better than others, but I usually have to work hard to detach the part of me that is constantly scanning facial expressions and small changes in tone, constantly taking in the feedback from all around, the feedback always being that I am at best boring and at worst a menace, stupid and unworthy and just taking up space that should go to someone better, someone less irritating and more worthy of just about everything.

Why are so many professional interactions so uncomfortable? So much hostility, so much grandstanding. Most of them I can only endure if I completely cut off a part of myself, the part that screams, “Run! Hide! Nobody wants you here!”

I know that the part of me isn’t always correct, that usually people don’t give enough of a shit about me one way or another to plot my demise.

That’s because the world, for the likes of me, is populated by people who don’t give a shit, which is a depressing option but actually a more relaxing one, because to know me is to be irritated by me. The few who do give a shit in a positive way are needles in a haystack.

How does it feel to be someone who thinks the world is their oyster, that everyone is out there to welcome and appreciate them?

I see my kids are like that, and I am both relieved that I haven’t ruined them and secretly terrified that they are deluded for thinking anyone (other than family) will give a shit about them. I know enough not to remove their rose-colored glasses (and keeping my doom and gloom away from them is sometimes really, really hard) but damn, wouldn’t it be nice to feel so positive toward the world and one’s place in it?

There has to be a level of obliviousness to one’s confidence, this ability to just have other people’s moods and vibes slide off you like water off a duck’s back, and not have each glance pierce your chest.

Today I participated in some online meetings, but didn’t have it in me to turn on my camera or say much. I felt particularly stupid, irritating, and just overall unwanted and irrelevant. Yet, if anything, I probably came across as disinterested and unprofessional.

It would be nice not to have days when I can’t help but speak my mind, only to always, ALWAYS, regret having talked. It would be nice not to always feel like too much, like such an imposition on everyone.

***

A few years ago, I wrote a post about travel in academia: why we do so much, if it’s necessary, how much I’ve grown to hate it, etc. Someone came to the comments to say that those who travel all the time and generally give their all to the job are the ones who deserve all the money and accolades and that, basically, you are either doing it 100% and it’s your life, or get out.

I think about that comment often. It’s such an American sentiment. You can only be one thing, and that thing must consume and define you, or else you are unworthy of even partaking, let alone winning.

On the one hand, that’s the prevailing narrative. On the other hand, it may be a steaming pile of garbage and simply a way to exhaust and thin out the competition.

Based on what I see it in fiction writing (now, 3.5 years in, having published both literary and speculative short fiction, and having sold enough of it at high-enough pay rates to qualify for membership in both HWA and SFWA), statements such as “success flows to the most devoted” and “only the most devoted deserve success” are simply untrue. I have seen newbies knock it out of the park with their first or second publication, and I’ve seen devoted veterans whose work never has and probably never will reach that level of quality. It sucks, but it’s true. There are people for whom writing is their entire life: they got their English degrees and/or their MFAs, they might work as English profs or editors, this is their calling, yet they may not be the best or the most prolific or the most original or the most anything; they struggle with writing and publishing like everyone else, and they keep going. Then you have the people who presumably shouldn’t even bother writing because it’s not their calling, but these people write and publish, are read and appreciated, and put out quality work into the community. Sometimes this work is of higher quality and gets into better markets than the work of those completely devoted. Is this fair? It doesn’t seem like it. Yet, that’s how it is.

It’s true that some literary magazines won’t really consider a writer seriously without an MFA or an English lit degree. But most aren’t like that. Most will read the work and judge it on its merit.

Should people like me, who have day jobs, not write at all? That means a priori removing potentially worthy, publishable work from the literary world just because the author is not devoted enough? And what’s devoted anyway? Even serious writers often don’t write full time; even serious writers have “day jobs.”

Not sure where I am going with this, other than screw anyone who measures someone’s worthiness by the amount of sweat and student debt, or the complete absence of interests and hobbies outside work. As Stephen King says, in On Writing: “Life is not a support system for art [or science]. It’s exactly the other way around.”

5 comments

  1. Sadly, it seems like some of academia (in my field) judges quantity in addition to quality. It can exclude very good scientists who can produce quality work, but seek a life outside of work. But given the supply vs demand for academic jobs, I guess it is always going to be that way.

    I wonder if some of the emphasis on conference travel is just to make academia a more exclusive club, only open to the “most committed” rather than the actual best players. Covid is changing that (with online conferences and many more free and open streamed seminars), but I think we will revert back.

  2. “to know me is to be irritated by me” – this line just made me really happy at the end of a day when I had to spend an extra two hours beating my head against a software wall so as to record a 15 min tutorial.
    Also, your colleagues are assholes. It should be your mission to irritate the fuck out of them 😉

  3. “Run! Hide! Nobody wants you here!” It is simulataneously scary and reassuring how deeply it resonates with me. My best wishes for developing more of contended and peaceful detachment — even if the state of blissful confidence, which seems to happen for some so naturally, continues to be elusive.

    One question: does this happen in meetings only with colleagues and contemporaries? Or even with students and postdocs in your group? Recently, I had a similar interaction with a graduate student I thought I got along with particularly well, and I am still reeling from the disappointment and sadness that engendered inside me.

  4. Physpostdoc, great question. Not really with students or postdocs, although I can feel uncomfortable if they’re really sending out negative vibes. With them, I feel that I have a definite purpose (to advise or teach), so I don’t feel like I am imposing on their time, and I really try not to. Plus I don’t find it hard to perform in alignment with my purpose (patient and tactful) without generally being my full annoying self, which I suppose is what much of professionalism is. Occasionally, if I let my guard down or feel like I’ve revealed something too personal or said something inappropriate, I feel really ashamed, beat myself up for days, and wish I could take it back. But, again, the main thing is that there’s a good reason why I need to be there (advising/education) so it’s easier to rationalize/accept that I’m not really imposing.

    I hear you on suddenly feeling unwelcome by someone with whom you thought you had a good rapport. It is absolutely gutting. I try to be careful around people, mindful of their growing irritation, and I swiftly retreat if I notice I’ve crossed a line or a boundary. It takes a lot to relax around people.

    In order for me to relax, someone has to consistently send out vibes that they enjoy my company and are not just counting minutes before I am out of their hair. If I finally do relax, but then all of a sudden start getting rejection/irritation vibes, I feel absolutely horrible. Humiliated, deeply ashamed that I have ever shared anything because I must have misread the signals, just absolutely mortified. I want to disappear.

  5. Thank you for your reply Xykademiqz. Your articulation of the situation is spot on — it is helpful to know that I am not (emotionally) crazy to be affected by interactions so deeply.

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