When you are too depressed to write your sabbatical proposal

Even my very supportive spouse tends to think that I am merely taking days off when I am struggling with depression. It is hard to communicate that what looks like a great, relaxed day for other people is, for me, the result of being unable to focus at all, on anything, and mostly just sleeping and feeling miserable for inexplicable reasons. Yes, Netflix is on, but I am not watching it, let alone enjoying it. I am looking for the sounds of words outside those inside my head. The ones on Netflix are having adventures. The ones inside my head are telling me I’m worthless and everything is futile, and no I can’t just cheer up.

When people response to your depression with “go out, get some exercise” and “eat better, you’ll feel better” and suggestions you are merely taking time off and being lazy, your depressed brain internalizes all those words as further evidence that you are terrible. At everything. After all, if you just ate that salad, you’d be fine!

Which is why I think I may have given myself the ultimate evidence this week that no, depression is not a just matter of not eating the salads, taking the walks, perking oneself up by one’s will: I was too depressed to write a tiny little sabbatical proposal. The same one they gave us is a page and a half long. Who can’t manage that? Most of my blog posts are longer than that.

Who couldn’t manage it? Me that’s who. So yeah, if this were all about lazing about, NOTHING would be a bigger prize than the sabbatical. Nonetheless, two years in a row, I’ve been too depressed to pull that big-bad page and a half together. The page-and-a-half golden ticket to hours and hours of endless slacking and slobbing. Ironic, eh? Yeah, my inactivity has nothing to do with slack and slobbing and everything to do with a brain hard-wired to hate myself.

Sabbatical proposals are due today. Wish me luck. I am going to try to slop something together and hope like hell nobody reads it, as it will be incoherent and horrible. It will be a testimony to the fact that I am, in all likelihood, utterly washed up as a researcher. But I can’t stand failing to turn anything in TWO YEARS IN A ROW.

Are you a good mentor if you are good to your own and evil to your (younger) competition?

Thrasymachus is a key intellectual influence on me. Plato nerds will remember Thrasymachus from The Republic, who blows in, not very friendly, and says that justice is aid/support of one’s friends and evil to one’s enemies.

In post-New Testament world where Christianity has had a lot of influence, that kind of statement is easier to downplay. We’re all God’s children, etc. In Socrates’ world, fierceness towards one’s enemies was way more of a given.

I think about this a lot now and then as I move into the latter part of my career. I have been what I consider to be a good arm’s length mentor to lots of young people. I do what I can for people, it hasn’t mattered to me all that much.

But here late, I’ve noticed that students with whom I have made a connection during recruitment time tend to use my time, a lot, even though they have said ‘thank you, no thank you’ to coming to our program at USC. Now, me being nice about all this is the best of both worlds: you get to go to various programs with their various brands and personalities AND you get my time/attention.

But that is time and attention that I am not giving my own students. I have always had a rule that no matter what, I will make time for people. I don’t snippily throw people out of my office. I stop in the hallway, when I can, for a chat. This is what normal human beings call “normal human behavior” but in the academy is weirdly rare. If you are busy, you are important, not a poor time manager or self-important dweeb, even though, in reality, all of these are equally likely explanations.

But as I have gotten sicker, my energies are more limited, and people have to wait longer for my help.

I hate the idea of blowing off young people. I hate it.

I have been reflecting on this a lot thinking about This One Dude at This One University from my past who is widely beloved as a mentor. And I think he’s probably pretty good. He has in his sphere a small group of younger scholars (and now, more established scholars) that work at his uni and occupy his Center.

But he was monumentally shitty to me as a young scholar at a different university. He used his outsized reputation (he’s a good scholar, but because he is a white male, the world views him as A GREAT SCHOLAR THE GREATEST THAT HAS EVER BEEN) to get on every NSF panel even remotely relevant to his kingdom, and he fucking *savaged* every proposal and paper down to every sentence I wrote. And I don’t think I’m alone. I can think of no successful young scholars in this field that didn’t pay him obeisance at his university.

His proteges have reaped the benefits of his willingness to destroy younger scholars elsewhere. Some of these people are not particularly great scholars, but they get in the door because he lets him in and, importantly, keeps other out.

Now, I was in the field briefly, and I think the work I did in the field was damn good. But as a young and ambitious scholar, I knew when that I was fighting uphill and in the rain, and I wandered off elsewhere.

There is part of me that thinks, eh, it’s just ego. The world turns and the field develops without me. So what? But I really, really believe in the scholarly endeavor of having many voices and many perspectives to create insights. Single schools of thought make me nervous, especially when those are created and perpetuated by power rather than quality of ideas.

The idea of acting the way he did towards me in my relationship to other young scholars makes me sick to my stomach. It’s way, way far afield of my core values as a person and a scholar. When you get yours in life, you have one job, and that job is to help others get theirs. Period.

But there’s Thrasymachus. Maybe I have done my own students a disservice by my big-tent conduct. Maybe they have suffered from my unwillingness to throw kids out of the tent whenever I have had the power to do so.