“People were gracious to give you the extension that they did…” My thesis mentor wrote in an email.
That festered in my mind for a full day. What he sees as a gracious extension is to me an unprecedented and onerous requirement sprung at the last minute by a callous committee who utterly failed to so much as attempt to provide some idea of their expectations beforehand.
Of course, that’s not entirely fair. That’s anger speaking. And pride. And disappointment. And lots and lots of ego. And it’s not something I even want to admit to feeling because it’s ugly and petty. But you know what? Sometimes our feelings are ugly and petty.
For Buddhist there are a lot of teachings out there about how to deal with negative emotions, but it’s all presented in the abstract. “When anger arises, do this…” It all sounds so simple. We are told to “cut the storyline.” It’s good advice. When my mind starts going on, yet again, about how damned unfair the entire thing is or how I just don’t know what they hell they… cut the story line. The storyline won’t help me actually accomplish the task.
But when does cutting the storyline become repression? It’s still there, festering in the back of my mind. And lately it’s been pushing itself forward. It's a fist closing around my heart, choking off my breath while the thought runs through my mind “Is it always going to be this way? Is this ever going to change?” And in that moment of desperation I wish to be anywhere but here, doing anything but this and yet simultaneous stare at a future of this instant without end. Panic freezes me into brittle stone as fear chews a hole in my chest.
Then I breathe. Let go. And when letting go doesn’t work, I push it away and stomp on it. I reassert the stubborn will that, as of yet, has never found a problem it couldn’t outlast. It’s not a permanent solution. The shadow still follows me around, but it is once again a shadow, not a full-grown monster. And it all happens in the blink of an eye, sitting in front of my computer in my sunny living room.
Most bizarre of all, I know what the problem is and I know what the solution is – intellectually. Putting this knowledge to practical use has always been the most difficult thing.
I know intellectually I am struggling with motivation. I see this entire project as an imposition from outside and I am an intrinsically motivated individual. This generates resistance and resentment. I also know what role fear plays. A teacher and good friend of mine hit it on the head many years ago when she noted I react most strongly and most negatively when my competence is threatened. I’m smart and I’m spoiled and I’m used to getting it in one. I don’t like feeling stupid. When I fail to understand I am also likely to fail to act, frozen into depression and confusion.
Despite all of this, I am approaching the end. But the process has been so long and so fraught with suffering that I now find myself gripped by a panic that my entire life will be this way – periods during which I feel my feet securely under me only to have my every effort once again dismissed as worthless by people who have authority over me but neither understanding of nor caring for me.
Perhaps, ‘worthless’ is a bit of an overstatement of fact, if not of feeling, but it is the feelings I am struggling with. They are strong emotions of resistance and incompetence, of being devalued and coerced. As many times as I cut the story line and attempt to refocus on the task, the feelings remain.
And I’m not going to “sit with it.” I’m not going to “delve into it,” because I can just feel it waiting to rise up and swallow me. I don’t have time for a nervous breakdown today, thank you.
The only course of action I feel open to me at this point is to just finish it. Do the best I can, finish the thesis, turn it in, show up at the defense, and then wash my hands of it and walk away. Maybe then I’ll be able to let go, to cut the story line, to sit with it if I still need to. Perhaps it’s not a healthy plan or even a good one, but for now, its the plan.
But what about next time? This surely isn’t the end of unwanted projects. It’s not the last time my competency will be threatened, just as it wasn’t the first. I claim I want to learn, but if I can’t put up with feeling stupid every once in a while (or constantly), how deep is my actual commitment to learning? Do I really want to set myself up for a lifetime of this?
The weary answer is yes. If I want to live a life of inquiry, then yes. And I’ve got one thing going for me – this entire problem is all in my mind.
Sure the work is bad enough, but that’s just a question of effort. I can write every section over again a dozen times if it comes down to it. It's only putting words on paper, typing on a keyboard, arranging and editing on a computer screen, all of which is totally within my ability to do.
The rest of it, the motivation and resentment and anger, that’s all on me, which means it’s entirely within my ability to control. Not easily, and not well (obviously), but it’s something I can learn to handle. And though my professors might be surprised to find, it is something I have learned to deal with, better this year than last year and all the years before.
That’s the Third Noble Truth, the cessation of suffering. It’s the path, too. There are ugly and petty things on the path, things we’d rather not encounter on this so-called journey to enlightenment because they’re not very enlightened. They’re not things we “should” feel. But isn’t that the point? Isn’t that why we’re on the path?
As for the thesis, there’s no turning back now. The damn thing’s all but done. And if I think this was bad, wait ‘til I get to my doctoral dissertation. Yeehaw. I'll lean a little more on that stubborn will I have in spades.
My mentor was right about the “gracious” bit, and if I’m obstinate enough to force myself to really look past the storyline, I can even see it that way sometimes.