Today, like Anne of Green Gables, I plumbed the Depths of Despair. I didn’t have much time to be there so I left fairly quickly, but it was unpleasant while it lasted. I wept hopelessly, and typed a list of all my failings, one of them, of course, being that I was wasting so much time on being in the Depths of Despair instead of transcribing and analysing my completely useless data.
I appreciate that this comes with the territory, that I am alone with my own impossible brain in this PhD, and I need to reconcile my self to my emotions in order to achieve anything. That small piece of self-knowledge stops me from despairing too much about being in the Depths of Despair. But it doesn’t make me feel any better.
In the interests of scientific enquiry, while cycling to collect the children from camp, I reflected on the triggers of my despair. They were twofold, or two-and-a-half-fold. First, following an irrelevant email thread, I found myself examining the supporting documentation for a generous post doctoral grant that might interest me. After 20 minutes of rooting, I confirmed that I wasn’t eligible. On some level, I had always known that I wasn’t eligible, so it’s hard to square the feeling it gave me – of uselessness, unemployability, and faint embarrassment at having thought a PhD was a worthwhile pursuit for somebody my age – but I think what really triggered despair was the knowledge that I had wasted nearly half a precious hour uncovering this information, when I could have been transcribing.
The second trigger was more far more upsetting, although it feels nonsensical. In another moment of distraction-seeking, I indulged a Facebook thread in which I was tangentially implicated. The thread was a discussion among communist friends (friends of mine, I mean), whose intellectual work I admire. The discussion was about the multiple failings of human rights, and the worthlessness of NGOs. I was being delicately teased by friends who saw me as being on the other side to them: they, dialectical materialists; us, foolish wrong-headed liberals. I felt inclined to weigh in, to give my opinion, but I couldn’t figure out how to frame it at all. I wanted to offer a nuanced perspective, neither a defence nor an agreement, but a different way of looking at the question, but I was somewhat lost in the abstraction of the argument, and pursued my thoughts in circles. What was the issue at stake, and what would conceding it mean, for my worldview? Had my worldview really been challenged, idly on somebody’s facebook wall, and if it had, did I have the guts to defend it? Or indeed would I have the guts to concede defeat, adopt a new worldview, and move on? The whole thing felt devastatingly trivial, and yet it stopped me in my tracks, because how could I continue with a chunky intellectual project like a PhD when my worldview had just been shattered?
I don’t think my worldview was in fact shattered; in fact, I didn’t feel my values budging an inch. I didn’t stop believing that everybody had an equal right to life, or speech, or a home; didn’t drift from a conviction that political action is needed to bring about change. Yet I felt adrift, unsure of my tribe, like the kid left waiting on the hockey pitch when everybody else had been assigned a team. Homeless. And stupid. And lost.
So there were two triggers: I will never get a job; and my worldview is subtly and confusingly undermined; plus a half trigger: I have now spent half an hour of my day in an internet tunnel of self-loathing, and as a result I now loathe myself and can’t possibly get anything done. This left me in the Depths of Despair.
It would seem utterly incontrovertible that what I should do is give up the internet, in particular social media. If ever there was an account of a self-destructive habit, surely this is it. And yet, it’s on the internet that I find intellectual nourishment, new ideas, challenges: some days I even get sucked into a different type of vortex, a productive one. My despair, a crazy brain-world luring me in, was neutralised by my kids, when the entire pursuit was cut short by their pick-up time; next thing I knew we were arguing about which route to scoot home and my worldview was of no consequence whatsoever. Dope. You don’t need a worldview to keep these two humans alive. You just need to show up, and pay attention.
So I’m grateful for small mercies: my kids, my bike, our back garden. I went to an event this evening and I talked to people, which also helped, because people rarely attack your value system in person in the way they will in academic papers, or indeed on Facebook.
This is the gig. A PhD in the social sciences is an invitation to make sense of the world through a teeny wormhole, to describe everything around your wormhole and everything that supports it. I am terrified of making decisions, but my topic can only have one context, one set of descriptors, which themselves use language that includes and excludes and above all exposes me. Perhaps I’m not afraid of decisions. Perhaps what I’m most afraid of is being exposed.
There’s nothing for it at any rate but to make decisions, to push on, to be seen for whatever it is that I am. I had similar crises in the course of my Masters, which leads me to expect I’m not alone in these rather trivial feelings of existential failure. I share this so that at some point, another person might feel less alone, or less absurd. I’m out of the Depths of Despair, although the real circumstances haven’t changed in the slightest. I’m still unemployable, still unsure whether human rights are a tool of the capitalist system, or whether I believe that’s an inherently bad thing. Now I’m not despairing though.