On a crisp day, during the Fall on 2001, I suddenly felt a sharp pain in my left knee as I crossed 53rd street. There had been no warning signs. Each step was painful, and by the time I reached my home a block and a half up, I was nearly crying. I was grateful for the building elevator, and I collapsed on my bed hugging my concerned dog. The pain did not go away, and I went to the university health services. I received the brush off (with some ibuprofen); a few weeks later I lost my temper at the health services when the attending physician suggested I should just get used to living with the pain. The security guards were close to escorting me out of the student health services, when another doc, a Van Orman Quine [how could I forget that name?], listened to my story, patiently re-examined me, and gave me a referral to a physical therapist. My PT was a young woman who had been a gymnast on the (junior) Team USA when she had a career ending injury due to a mistake by one of the ground crew (a landing-mattress was removed where she landed after an exercise). It was hard to feel really sorry for myself in the presence of her equinamity. Under her guidance, I was pain-free about six to eight weeks later.
Losing my temper was a sign to myself to check back in with the therapist at the university's counseling services. I had sought her out during my first year of graduate school in the aftermath of the end of my very first long-term romance. The terms of the counseling service prevented her from offering long-term care (I ended up in classical analysis with another therapist), but I found her very helpful. Moreover, she always kindly stopped to chat (small-talk) when we would bump into each other in dog park or elsewhere in Hyde Park. She asked me what else was going on except for not 'feeling heard' and my sense I was not getting adequate care that I thought I deserved. 'You mean other than 9/11?,' I said. 'Yes.' 'Well, one of my supervisors will not support me on the market.' 'Do you feel abandoned?' [pause] 'Yes, how did you know?' 'Well, it doesn't take an advanced degree to figure out that one, Eric...' We both laughed. 'More?' She looked at me. I had to resist to crawl into her big body for a bear-hug. 'Well, on September 11, I was in Las Vegas with my dad, a holocaust survivor, and another graduate student, where we were stranded for a week. It was very surreal because...'
Unsurprisingly, my first Eastern APA on the market, a few weeks later, was hell. I had few job interviews, all of them short ones in the big ballroom--one of these (the most prestigious one), I learned much later, was a courtesy to one of my letter writers with the interviewers scanning the ballroom behind me with their eyes throughout. In another I was exposed to the lack of professionalism so common among philosophers (recall this post). I was utterly invisible at the Smoker, and I returned to a dark and gloomy Chicago with too much time to think and lacking any structure to keep my mind busy, or preoccupied with something other than Angst and self-loathing. I asked my therapist if she would consider giving me anti-depressive meds; she agreed if at the end of the ten weeks I felt I still needed them. With my knee I avoided jogging and tennis, but spent a lot of time in the gym on the X-trainer and the exercise bike. Exercise helps, but does not really address the numbness in one's stomach pit.
Luckily for me, I had signed up to teach a course in The University of Chicago's Graham School for continuing education on philosophy of economics (not the topic of my dissertation). On the bus downtown I met a beautiful B-school student [hi Rebecca!], whose vivacity mesmerized me. During the first session, I discovered that most of the 'students' were either professors (of law, statistics, sociology, etc.), economists working at the Chicago Federal Reserve, security industry lawyers, and a whole bunch of interesting retirees. I became nearly overwhelmed with what is now known as 'imposture syndrome.' But as I went around the room, asking these horribly overqualified people what they expected to get out of the class, it dawned upon me that we could explore the issues together and I would simply try to learn as much as possible. As the weeks passed, and the days lengthened, I had reasons to look forward to my trips down-town.
Yet, I also felt bemusement at Princeton. I had not always felt that I belonged, nor did I always feel welcomed. It's nice to have an audience, especially for ideas one has worked on developing, but the more important feeling follows the day after. There are days when I want to call my old self and tell him how swell his career will unfold. There are other days when even the most delicate poetry cannot remove the numbness I mentioned above. In my experience, being immersed in giving comfort and shelter to a child is joyous, but it is not a faint-hearted enterprise--disaster is often just a minor misstep away.
Some of the graduate students from all over the world I met last week reminded me of my former self. It may well have been projection, of course, but I had the distinct sense that a few were struggling with depression and imposture syndrome. (A comment about an extended leave here; a surprise shock at my genuine interest in his/her work there, etc.) After I left town, I felt clumsy for not allowing any space for conversations to develop about the fragility in our lives, how to learn not to stamp out our tenderness in an environment full of petty cruelties or just indifference (exacerbated by simultaneously recognizing one's privilege). Obviously, nudging us into such a conversation would have been inappropriate, and given my quick departure, possibly even very counterproductive. I am not a trained therapist, and probably my interlocutors get a lot more out of me to talk about philosophy than, say, unsolicited (and undoubtedly creepy) offers for hugs. But sometimes opening up to a stranger is easier than confiding in a familiar face. Not for the first time I am struck by how easy it is for professional philosophy to be turned into a crate that keeps us isolated.
*While we are often encouraged to think of the supervisor as analogous to a parent, I think the main analogy consists in getting false credit and debit by outsiders for the achievements (and failures) of the student while one's genuine contributions, if any, to their development remain invisible.