This morning dawned purple – violet edging into pink over the rooftops of Birmingham – which felt appropriate for a day of passion. A quirk of the calendar means today is both Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday, which may seem like an incongruous pairing at first; a resolutely secular holiday typified by relentless heteronormative stereotypes printed in reds and pinks, wrapped in cellophane, paired with a somber day of repentance.
But St Valentine’s Day, of course, marks a martyrdom; and it struck me that in the middle ages the juxtaposition of the two holidays would seem perfectly appropriate. In the medieval Christian mind, love is as much about sacrifice as about gift-giving; indeed the greatest gift Christians have been given is Christ’s sacrifice. In many ways, the measure of medieval love is about how much you were willing to give up.
This week I have been reflecting a good deal on loss. On Monday we laid Mark Whittow, eminent historian, colleague and friend, to rest. The sky was a brilliant blue, the kind of shade it hurts your heart to look at; a blue that has the cleanness of the end of winter and the brightness of the promise of spring. A Virgin kind of blue, I think; so many medieval nativities, with Mary’s faced etched with both immediate joy and the promise of later sorrows, feature that kind of shade.
On the same day I read a post by Erin Bartram, one that has gone viral as fellow scholars – and casualties of academic culture – share her painfully honest words about having to leave academia behind.
Despite the abundance of quit-lit out there, we’re still not, as a community of scholars, doing a great job dealing with this thing that happens to us all the time. The genre is almost universally written by those leaving, not those left behind, a reflection of the way we insulate ourselves from grappling with what it means for dozens, hundreds, thousands of our colleagues to leave the field.
Quit-lit exists to soothe the person leaving, or provide them with an outlet for their sorrow or rage, or to allow them to make an argument about what needs to change. Those left behind, or, as we usually think of them, those who “succeeded”, don’t often write about what it means to lose friends and colleagues. To do so would be to acknowledge not only the magnitude of the loss but also that it was a loss at all. If we don’t see the loss of all of these scholars as an actual loss to the field, let alone as the loss of so many years of people’s lives, is it any wonder I felt I had no right to grieve? Why should I be sad about what has happened when the field itself won’t be?
I’ve lost a huge part of my identity, and all of my book learning on identity construction can’t help me now. What hurts the most, in a way, is that my loss has been replicated a thousand times over, and will be replicated a thousand times more, barring some mass rejection of capitalism, and rather than face what that means, we have, as a profession and as people, found ways of dealing with it that largely erase the people we lose, erase their pain and grief, and erase our own.
In academia it’s a truism now that not everyone will make it. There are too many of us and too few jobs. We’ve all repeated that enough that, despite the existential dread it fills many of us with, it has become almost meaningless. As Dr Bartram makes clear, knowing a thing doesn’t mean we really know it, the deep sort of knowing that requires us to address grief and process it. Instead the casualties of an industry built increasingly on precarity can be shuffled to the side. Each time it happens it feels like an individual loss (and for many of us feels like an individual failure), rather than a systemic problem. Part of this, of course, is because we are hardwired still to think that if we just worked hard enough, cleverly enough, we would have succeeded. If we loved academia enough, whether or not it seems to love us back.
But that is an invitation to masochism (and not the pleasant kind some people might enjoy between consenting partners!). My very favourite poem in the world is T.S. Eliot’s Ash Wednesday, and every Ash Wednesday I re-read it ritualistically. I am these days a not-particularly-observant Catholic; but for me this poem has always resonated with deep spiritual truths. Today I woke up thinking about this part:
Wavering between the profit and the loss
In this brief transit where the dreams cross
The dreamcrossed twilight between birth and dying
(Bless me father) though I do not wish to wish these things
From the wide window towards the granite shore
The white sails still fly seaward, seaward flying
Many early career scholars spend years in that place between the profit and the loss, a place that can feel pregnant with possibility and heavy with the end of opportunities. Loving what you do can be a wonderful gift and a terrible burden, can’t it?
I have no substantive answers to how we address this problem, besides fighting the onward march of casualisation and calling as always for adopting a radical principle of academic kindness in the academy. But I want to acknowledge Erin’s loss as a loss to her field, as a loss to academia, as a single example of a much wider series of losses. To acknowledge that grief in the face of loss of what you hoped to do is perfectly normal, understandable, human, and also that loving what you do is not enough reason to keep tolerating pain. If the scales tip always toward loss rather than profit, it is time to do something else.
I hope that day won’t come for me, or at least not yet. I do love what I do: the work of research, of teaching, of being colleagues with so many good, kind, clever, funny, passionate people. I have done some good work during this fellowship, and I hope to continue it. If I can’t, then – well, I hope that I can find a very blue sky to mourn under, and then under another sunrise take a new journey to a different place, full-bellied with different chances, instead of hollowed out by loss.
Blessed sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit of the garden,
Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will
And even among these rocks
And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,
Suffer me not to be separated
And let my cry come unto Thee.