I spent most of today working on a new blog post motivated in part by a re-tweet of a teaser for same by, well, Will Moore. Who I had seen in Phoenix only six weeks ago where he introduced my talk with—and I am now so glad I told him this at the time—one of the most thoughtful and eloquent introductions I’ve ever received. This was followed by dinner at an appropriately sleazy Tex-Mex place which Will, being Will, hoped would at least begin to match the appropriately sleazy zydeco joint he took me to outside Tallahassee a few years earlier.
Then, via Twitter, the village well of the political set, the news, and then reading through his final blog post. There’s more to say than really works on Twitter, and so that other blog post is going to wait a day or two, even though I suspect Will would be particularly fond of it. In this one, three thoughts for the living:
1. It is certainly the case that our relatively small community of experts on violent political conflict—of which Will was a part—do not have the most stressful of jobs: those go to the people sent, nowadays often repeatedly, into conflict zones by “leaders” who simply think it will send “a message”, who would never in a million years ask members of their own families to do this, yet mindlessly send fellow citizens into regions and cultures they don’t understand and have been given little practical preparation for, and on returning are told simply to “get over it” or, at best, wait at the end of a really long line. People on the receiving end of these cynical and soulless political “statements” don’t fare too well either. I’m not equating our academic and research experience to that.
Yet at the same time, I suspect, particularly over the long run, this work begins to take a toll. I left academia before “trigger warnings” came into vogue, but in my courses on conflict and on defense policy, there were books where every other chapter probably deserved a trigger warning. And those were just the ones I assigned: the background reading could be far worse. In the process of coding the PITF atrocities data, every month I get to read every story from anywhere in the world of journalists getting gunned down in front of their children, people desperately searching for the bodies of their wives or husbands in the debris of marketplace car bombings, and joyful wedding parties suddenly reduced to bloody carnage because some shell went astray or someone misinterpreted the video from a distant drone. You can’t take it all in, but you can’t, and shouldn’t, just ignore it either. When I’m doing this coding, my mood is invariably somber, and every once in a while, I’ll say something and realize no, most people don’t think like this.
And so, to those in this business: we’re too small a population to ever study, but this could well have effects, and I’m sure they are not positive. Be careful, eh?
2. Since the Deaton and Case study, there’s been a lot of concern—though of course, little real action—on the rise in “deaths by despair” in the white middle class. Is this another such situation?: perhaps, and Will’s final blog certainly points in that direction.
My grandfather and great-uncle in a down-and-out corner of nowhere in southwestern Indiana both killed themselves late in life: the family saying—Hoosiers, just a bundle of laughs they are—was “The Schrodt treatment for depression is drinking a pint of Drano.” So the prospect of depression—which I got close enough to a couple of times much earlier in my life to get a sense of the possibilities—is always there. I self-medicate a bit—St. John’s wort during the winter months, and exercising caution in my consumption of recreational depressants—and self-meditate a lot. Both seem effective at keeping the beast at bay.
If not, there are people who understand these things way better than an affected individual can as an amateur, and please avail yourself of them: when it was needed— induced in my case by stresses in the academic world—I certainly did. The Hollywood/Woody Allen/New Yorker cartoon image of endless years of talking with some balding and bearded guy while on a couch: no, it’s not like that at all (or at least wasn’t for me), instead just a lot of focused and sensible discussions with one or more smart and empathetic people for a few weeks or months aimed at figuring out what is setting you off and how you might change this. My grandfather and great-uncle didn’t have that sort of help available, whereas I—and I would guess virtually everyone reading this blog—did have it, easily. Use it.
Your chances of needing therapy, however, will decrease if you’ve got some community. Any community: book group, Renaissance fairs, Saturday bicycling, roller derby, helping kids learn to code. Whatever: just some group of people who will occasionally inconvenience and aggravate you but which you trust could be occasionally inconvenienced and aggravated in return. And which will for a period of time get you away from staring at screens filled with pixels and wondering how you’ll find time to read (or write) yet another article. We’re social animals: we have no more evolved to be alone than we have evolved to live underwater. Bob Putnam pointed this out twenty years ago; little changed, and the outcome was Deaton and Case.
3. My final point is one I’ve made before, and is addressed specifically to aging academics: if you are feeling like you’ve done your time, as Will clearly did based on what he said in his final blog posting, get out! Voluntarily, not [just] for the sake of the next generation, but for your own sake. I did this four years ago and can quite literally say I have not for a second regretted the decision: there’s another world out there, new things to explore, new opportunities, things you never thought you’d do, go for them. If there is one thing I wish I could have said to Will on that trip in January—though I probably did, just not with sufficient effect—that would be it.
If you are happy in academia, great!—keep at it. But don’t keep at it if you are not happy: you’ve got golden handcuffs, and they may be golden, but they still are handcuffs. In something like Will’s situation, with family responsibilities in the past, the world is open to you and you won’t be able to even imagine some of those opportunities until you let go of the routines and grasp the freedom. I could (and have) go on and on about how academia, with its rigid schedules, suffocating bureaucratic complexity, repetitive debates, endless preening and hustling, and vast time horizons stretching far into the future, is not a country for old men (nor, generally, women of any age): there’s more to life than another stack of blue books and another faculty meeting considering reversing policies you had endless faculty meetings putting into place fifteen years ago, those in turn reversing policies established fifteen years before that.
When we were living in Norway, we noticed a common phrase on gravestones in little rural cemeteries: Takk for alt. Fred. Thanks for everything. Peace.
Thanks for everything, Will. Peace.