The fact of the matter is that we are only given one life. Or we are only conscious of the life we are living at this moment. The weight of that fact, when you really think about it, and when it sets in, is pretty heavy. We are only given a finite amount of time on this planet, and we spend so much time worrying about things that will never happen, scrolling on posts and social media that we will forget in a few moments, and so many other things (looking for things we misplaced, driving in traffic, and so on). If we count these seconds, minutes, hours, that add up to weeks and even years of our lives, it makes one wonder why no one is freaking out about the little time we actually have.
I am constantly confronted with this question.
So many times I just gloss over it. Yes, it might not be worth it, but tomorrow is yet another day. Tomorrow will always yield another day, but if you will be part of it is another question. But this very logic got me to the position I am in now. I am getting closer and closer to a third of my life, and I still do not have much to show except the various degrees that I have managed to get throughout the years and the little teaching experience I have.
Here I am again asking myself this question after struggling with a relatively complex paper I need to write before the halfway mark of January. I am busting my head on a relatively difficult section of the paper which I have not written yet, and my only research has been from 3 or 4 years ago. Now, I am questioning myself, as always, if this is really worth it. The academy is not for everyone. The space is filled with people who know, and people who think they know. But the commonality between these two people is that they have the confidence to present their ideas without a hint of humility. The person who knows, knows that they know. The person who does not know, still thinks that they know. Those who show hints of humility, especially epistemic humility, gets chewed up and spit out. It is funny that I managed to stay unchewed this long. But with the current paper I am writing, I think this will change.
The problem with academia, like science and so many other fields, is that every field has its specialists. In fact, modern academia is filled with specialists. You do not really find someone with extensive trans- and cross-disciplinary skills and knowledge. It is impossible for someone to be an expert in more than one field, especially in the humanities, because of the fact that every field has become so specialised that you need extensive research to simply understand the smallest thing. Linked with this is the history of that idea. You cannot simply try to understand the concept XYZ, you need to know the history of how that concept was used and is currently being used. In short, you need to participate in an incredibly complex conversation to just begin to understand concept XYZ.
And this is where the confidence is key thing comes in and where fake it till you make it can really screw you up. Academia is a game. Like so many other things in life, it is merely a game. If you know the rules of the game, you can win the game. You can also break the rules, but that is a topic for another day. But if you successfully played the game, and you think about it, what did you really achieve? This is where I am at. I read so many academic papers, probably 2-3 a day. I write papers, I am finishing up my PhD, and all of these "activities" which form part of the game, but when I stand back for a second and reflect on all of it, I get to two things:
- Is it really worth it? and
- What am I even doing? Do I even understand anything at this point?
Knowledge is a funny thing. The more you read and study, the less you know because you realise what you do not know is growing at a faster rate than the things you do know. And this is scary when you attempt cross-disciplinary subjects. Because you will always remain a learner in both fields that you attempt to study, and you will know that there are people out there who specialise just in that one particular field. And if they begin to question you, in front of many other scholars, I am not sure how my body will react.
I have devoted about 7 years of my life to my particular field of study. There is still so much I want to learn, read, know about, get to experience. Now I am attempting to bridge a gap between my field and another. I am one of the first to attempt it. The field I am about to bridge in is notorious for its territorial disputes. I do not have the confidence in this new field to fool them with bullshit, to put it mildly. I have less than 2 months to produce a paper that I need to present, and all I can think about is "Is it really worth it?". Self-doubt is like a weed that grows so quickly, drops its seeds, and grows ten times the amount of plants than initially present. If you do not pull these new plants out, they will also grow seeds that will spread like wildfire. Then you will be in a situation where you question the whole edifice of your career and knowledge base.
It is funny how we are given one life, one opportunity (as so many artists have sung in their songs) and we waste it on so many inconsequential things.
I am reminded of a story of a Greek who sat on the edge of the peer looking over the ocean. A rich American businessman docks his boat and sees the many olive trees growing at random across the Greek's property. The American sees the potential and asks the Greek why he is not producing olive oil and such. The Greek asks why should he do that? And the American says, because then you can sell it and get rich, that is why! And the Greek asks, why do I want to become rich? The American says boastfully, to buy a ship and to live a life without worry and so on. The Greek says sarcastically, I am already living a life free of worry.
We waste our lives trying to impress others, to write papers, to get rich, all the while we could have been happy and "rich" in our own ways without attempting to climb this ladder with broken steps.
Life is funny, and I constantly ask myself regarding these complex and difficult tasks, is it really worth it?
And in the end, they are. Rarely have I walked these difficult paths and succeeded in getting to the other side questioning what I have done. It is only in the process of getting to the other side that is difficult to remain focussed. But as soon as you see the light in the tunnel and you climb the ladder to the higher position, you realise that it was worth it all.
(All of the writings in this post are my own, albeit inspired by the relative discomfort I am feeling at the thought of writing this paper/presentation. The photograph used in this post is also my own, taken with my Nikon D300.)