Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Mon, 03 Jun 2002 10:47:31 -0400 (EDT)
Random Thought: A Professional Curse

Well, I am 61. I really don't feel it or believe it, or even act it, except when I get that blasted senior citizen discount. My body is no a longer trim, firm, solid, defined, muscular 148 pounds of my collegiate athletic days. I walk my six miles every other day, daily lift very light ten pound weights, do a about twenty inclined sit-ups, and stay away from the caloric and artery clogging goodies to keep mentally, spiritually and a physically healthy 163 pounds. See you, I have found that my true youthfulness is in my attitude, my spirit, not in my physique. The weight of my weights no longer weigh on my mind. What does this have to do with teaching and academics? A lot.

Last October was the tenth anniversary of my epiphany. Since that milestone I have come to appreciate that the great wonders, the most beautiful things to behold, are not tangibles. That is especially true in the classroom. Lately, as a result of a message from a student that I will keep to myself and more because of a series of stirring sharing from a dear friend who had--hopefully it is a "had"--breast cancer but wouldn't let the cancer have her in spite of a masectomy, I have found myself thinking a lot about purpose and meaning, about the purpose and meaning of my inner journey that was launched on that fateful October morning, about purpose and meaning in my profession, about purpose and meaning in life in general. In fact, contrary to what too many of us attempt to do, they are inseparable.

At the moment of that inner revelation, I was the country's authority in my field of historical research and publication. I was the most published professor on my campus. I had received more grants than the entire college faculty combined. I had a scholarly resume that was longer than any other on campus. Year after year, until we graduated to become a University, the President specifically cited it throughout his annual reports. None of that is important now. It's not me, although at the time I thought such professional objects were me.

I often reflect on the real meaning of my continuing journey. At first, I defined it simply as "I changed" as if I was either a chameleon or had metamorposed. That is partly true. Then, two years ago I came to a realization. It wasn't me that was changing. The real me had always been there, buried and ignored. The journey was really a matter of discovering and uncovering the real me that lay hidden, that motherlode laying beneath the barren surface. That, too, is true. Then, last year, I realized it wasn't me that was changing, it was my perceptions of myself that was changing, that I had been seeing I was worth mining for, and that I had been acquiring a faith, belief that I possessed undreamed of and untapped talents and abilites and worth. And, that also is true. All are true. Lately, as I read Margo's reflections as she handled her cancer, I began to think that the real journey was and still is about a transition from trappings to essence, from feeding my ego to feeding my soul, from it being about getting what I wanted to it being about who I needed to be, from a executing "what" and "how" to an energizing and directional "why," from thinking it's important to be important to thinking it's important to being significant, from being served to serving, from receiving to giving, from measuring my accomplishments in terms of things I had acquired to measuring them in term of impact on others, from prestigous to honorable, from strategy and tactic and ploy to life choice.

It is a journey from achievement to significance.

Understand, I am not talking about a journey of sacrifice and selflessness. To the contrary, I am talking about no longer sacrficing and no longer being selfless, for that is exactly what I had done questioningly and willingly, and maybe unwittingly, until that fateful moment. I had surrendered by worrying about what others thought and I did what they expected--or thought they expected. I sacrificed my "self" and had become "self-less." No, I am talking about a journey to the center of my "self." I get the feeling, though I can't prove it, that the unhappy and unsatisfied among my colleagues were once like me. If they could muster the couage of admission, they are those who deep down, statements to the contrary, feel they've never done anything worthwhile in their careers, worry that they will leave no mark on the world, worry that their lives are insignificant, and worry that they will not be missed. Quite simply, it feels good, really, really good, to be valued and feel valuable, to help others help themselves, to provide opportunities for others, to stimulate personal growth, to make a difference. When I do that there is an enormous sense of almost indescrible meaning, worth, purpose, gratification, and contentment that comes along with it. I make no bones about that. It is, as Emerson said, one of the most beautiful compensations of life is that no one can sincerely help someone else without helping himself.

I had once gone into the classroom, pronouncements to the contrary, distracted by worries about tenure, promotion, salary increase, a research grant, a committee assignment, a publication, a conference paper. I was so preoccupied with the tedium of our profession believing that these matters would get me personal and professional success. In my rush, a rush that bordered on a fifteen year scholarly binge, to pass such profesisonal milestones I was unwittingly creating obstructions that limited the potential I really didn't believe I possessed. Yes, I had acquired the trappings of position, status, renown, title, security. And, so many said that these markers marked the heights of my profession. I now know that to talk about "heights" or "summit," or even to strive for them as if they were a reality, is a professional curse. It's a curse because once the summit, then what? What's next? How can you go higher than a pinnacle? Do you coast and rest on your proverbial laurels? Do you slide? It's a curse because like Tevye, singing "If I Were A Rich Man," I easily thought that my professional resume equaled happiness. It's a curse because it says that to pursue other things in academia, such as teaching, is to either stumble forelornly in the shadows of the valley or never had the abiity to have made the climb successfully. It's a curse because I, like too many of us, tended to overvalue these milestone, wanted them too much, was willing to sacrifice too many and too much, and thought falsely they could do so much for me. It is a curse because it allowed me, like too many of us, to be satisfied with success, and never reach for and know significance. It's a curse because it's a narcotic. To paraphrase a Talmudic saying, as we think these things will get us happiness and success, we are too willing to do anything to get them. It's a curse because I rationalized succumbing to tempation with an acceptable enslaving "I had no choice" or "everyone's doing it" or "I'm pressured." Of course, if I was honest at the time, I used the words "choice" and "pressure" to get off the hook. To have resisted cost more at the time then I wanted to pay. It is so much more socially acceptable to give into choice and pressure than to be be led into and succumb to temptation. I guess it that Sermon on the Mount thing. I have to admit such choices or pressures or temptations came because I had sought them out and the choice and presssure wasn't exactly unwelcomed. It's a curse because I "red zoned" myself. Ignoring Aristotle's golden rule, I could easily say I didn't have time for all the students and so easily found all the time I wanted for all the scholarly stuff. I moved my needle into the dangerous area of imbalance and turned myself into something of a, but thankfully not a total, researchaholic and publishaholic. I rationalized that the quest for professional recognition was a never-satisfied devouring monster. Part of my epiphany was the difficult admission that the monster wasn't in me; it was me. Others in that red zone don't allow themselves the time or energy to enjoy, and/or they cripple themselves with fear and paranoia making themselves overly cautious and turning away from opportunities, or, perhaps worst of all, they engaged in ethical and moral flexibility, however subtle, that opens and increases the hole in their moral ozone and makes them unworthy despite their professional worth. It is a curse because too many of us pay such a large price for little return.

Am I less the professional or have I become a non-professional because I am focusing all my energies on teaching, because I am not totally concerned with each student, because I give workshops and make keynote addresses at conferences and on campuses only on teaching, because I have decided to concentrate my energies on the all-important, if not most important, first year survey courses that most faculty deride, because I don't go after those grants? Most of my colleagues secretly think so. Some think I have experienced a form of reverse Darwinism and should go over to the School of Education instead of remaining in the Department of History.

So many of us, in our rush for tenure or promotion or salary incrase rush to please others. Do you know that the entire campus, with one exception, is populated by others. They are so many of them with so many differences exhorting so many different demands. There is too much to cater to, too many to please, too many to displease, too many who disagree, too many who want you to do it their way, too many who want things done differently, too many who are doing their best, night and day, to make you everybody else. You can't please them all. If you try, you'll spend all your moments either fighting battles, taking on windmills, or surrendering before a battle is waged. The trick is not to please any of those others. If you do, you'll get what you accept or don't accept. All of our excuses to feel pain, sorrow, and not to live are in "what will other's think." These complaints and excuses may be elaborate and well reasoned, yet they give you no fulfillment or satisfaction. We fritter away our days worrying about what others will think. We die and our teaching whithers from fear and doubt.

You know, tenure and promotion and salary increase is about what others think. Fame is about what others think. A ticker tape parade is about what others think. Getting a building named after you is about what others think. A momument is about what others think. An award is about what others think. But, it's not about what others think; it's about what I feel. It's about what's going on in my heart and being true to it. It's about being a force rather than being forced. It's about putting my whole heart into making a difference, and knowing the joy of teaching by piling difference on difference on difference. Belieive me, there will be pain and consequence of being true to it, but the pain of not being true to it is far, far greater.

As I now see it, we paint the self-portrait that we call our character, personal and professional, with our actions, not will our words. Too many of us, caught up in the daily quest of professional achievement timidly dab with pale colors of short lived accomplishments, and shallow successes. Too few of us boldly stroke with the deep, rich colors of lasting purpose, meaning, and significance. So the question for each of us is whether our souls will be hungry for prestige or meaning. Will we be satisfied with the "things" of our professions or whether we will reach beyond those things for the possibility of making a difference, changing things, touching lives, and making the world a better place.

Somewhere I read that none of us should forget that the importance of what I do and goes well beyond what it gets me; it determines what and who I am. And what and who I am is infinitely more important than what I have.

Ain't that the truth. And, that is the meaning of my journey.

         Make it a good day.


         Louis Schmier      
         Department of History
         Valdosta State University
         Valdosta, GA  31698                 /~\        /\ /\
         912-333-5947              /^\      /     \    /  /~\  \   /~\__/\
                                 /     \__/         \/  /  /\ /~\/         \
                          /\/\-/ /^\_____\____________/__/_______/^\
                        -_~    /  "If you want to climb mountains,   \ /^\
                         _ _ /      don't practice on mole hills" -    \____

Return to The Complete Random Thoughts of Louis Schmier
Return to the Random Thoughts of Louis Schmier