The insecure scholar: Hope, anger and paralysis

The burden of trying to generate enthusiasm and work is suffocating me

December 15, 2009

I’m tired, weary, exhausted. I wake in the morning and all I think about is when I can go back to bed. I long to collapse with a cheap thriller and a cup of tea, or to lose myself in a DVD box set. Every minute I sit at my laptop feels like an eternity. I can’t seem to get in the groove, to get going.

Regular readers might be forgiven for groaning now: has the “whingeing scholar” returned after the more positive columns in recent weeks? Well, although I will admit that I do sometimes use this space to vent, the reasons for my exhaustion have a wider relevance. Even if I do have a chronic health condition, this isn’t why I feel bone-weary.

For most people, including myself, exhaustion tends to happen as a result of being overloaded in work or one’s personal life. But this isn’t what is happening to me. No, it’s actually the opposite problem – a lack of commitments – that is dragging me down.

When I turned on my computer on Monday morning after a pretty relaxing family weekend, I didn’t want for things to do. But for the first time in months, I realised that there was very little that I had to do. My research project (for which my contract runs out in the new year) is virtually finished, and the report I’ve written has been sent out for comment so there is nothing I can do on it at the moment. Other than one meeting, writing this column and a few Christmas cards, I had very little planned: there were no urgent deadlines looming.

At the same time, however, my “to do” list has never been longer. For weeks now, I’ve been “doing the hustle”, as I termed it in a previous column – pitching research grant ideas, applying for jobs and generally trying to make my presence felt. These are all things I need to continue doing. The Moleskine notebook in which I jot down ideas for articles is groaning with writing possibilities. There are myriad directions in which my life could go, most of them exciting and intriguing.

Yet although I don’t want for ideas, I lack the energy needed to put them into action. The problem is that in almost every part of my so-called career at the moment, everything depends on me. I’m the one on whom all the ideas stand or fall; without my efforts none of them will become a reality. If I stand still, almost every ball I have in the air will fall to the ground. Other than some very small pieces of work, I have nothing that I can take for granted; everything is down to me. Since sitting down at my laptop on Monday, I’ve been near paralysed by the many choices facing me. I don’t know what to do first – and even if I did, I feel as if it will take a superhuman effort just to get going.

What’s contributing to this situation is that I fired off a whole stack of emails at the end of last week. Some were to potential collaborators, some to potential editors, some to potential participants in projects I want to run. Only a fraction of those to whom I wrote have replied to me, and this is making me resentful. I know full well that no one owes me a living and that this time of year tends to be very busy for most people. Still, every time I check my email I go from hope to anger in a few seconds. This isn’t good for me.

Job insecurity sucks for everyone. Materially speaking, I know that I am in a far better position than someone with few qualifications searching for the next soul-destroying unskilled job. But there’s a particular kind of pain that afflicts someone in my situation: if you have experience, if you have a track record, if you have a decent reputation, if you are in a situation where you could make something happen, then it’s hard to avoid the pressure that comes from feeling that it’s all down to you.

At the moment, that pressure is weighing me down. I have to keep hustling, I have to keep generating ideas. At the same time, though, I can’t stop fantasising about a knight in shining armour, magically bringing paid work to me…

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