Saturday, November 19, 2011

The existential academic

On a plane high above the desert giving way to mountains, one is as alone as it's possible to be outside of the wilderness or cloister. Yes, you're packed in an aluminum tube with a couple hundred strangers; you're even sitting cheek by jowl with them, sneaking surreptitious peeks at the crossword puzzle on which they appear to be stuck.

But your thoughts are so thoroughly your own that it can even be disturbing. The song that is running through your head (in my case, "All Kinds Of Time" by Fountains of Wayne) will be there until displaced by the noises of the terminal at your destination; it seems to pulse along with the white noise of the aircraft engines. The ideas that arise when you look out the window, or pause in your reading, or glance at the Selena Gomez movie playing in the flip-down screen that youve never heard of before (I was hoping during the opening credits that MONTE CARLO would turn out to be a sequel to GRAN TORINO) -- they are as private as they come, since there is no one with whom one is in social intercourse, and not the slightest opportunity to express them.

The most pressing decisions I always feel weighing upon me during a conference like this one are the choices, repeated and unrelenting, between company and solitude. There are obligations, and there are opportunities, and between the two is limned a space for choice. In dispatching my obligations to meetings and committees and appearances at functions to which I have been invited, am I clearing for myself a space to retreat when those events are over? Am I still obligated to myself, my profession, my colleagues, to be present at every point where my calendar gives me a choice?

I'm not suggesting that this is an all-or-nothing equation; my Annual Meetings app is already chock-a-block with sessions where I have no formal role but plan to attend in support of a friend or a group. I take heart, too, in the example of my boss who defends the expense of a hotel room partly by the rest and rejuvenation that the busy conference attendee -- especially the busy leader or elected official -- needs.

And yet no one who attends such meetings will deny that the choice to skip a session, to go walking by the Bay or to see a museum exhibit or just to retreat, is fraught with guilt and self-justification. How do we know our motivations are unsullied? How do we make the most of the money various organizations have contributed to our expenses? If I meet with a publisher about a book project that will enhance the reputation of the department and solidify my promotion prospects, have I earned an indulgence, or is this no more than my bounden duty at every waking moment while I have the University's name on my lanyard and the honorific flags of board and committee member hanging from my name tag?

I dramatize too much. But it's the solitude that makes you wonder, that gets inside your head and renders every minor decision fraught with existential pitfalls related to one's many conflicting roles -- as a traveller, a stranger, a professional, a director, a scholar, an alumnus, a teacher, a learner, a colleague. The couple on the row in front of me looking at a Beijing guidebook and excitedly planning their trip have fewer roles but will feel the same weight of decisions -- how best to make the most of this once-in-a-lifetime journey? How to regard plans and improvisations respectively? If the thought arises to separate for individual activities rather than remaining a duo, how should it be regarded? Freedom brings more questions, the burden of the answers' significance stronger than ever. It's a dilemma my students reading Sartre and Kierkegaard would recognize immediately.

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