This semester has been rough. I taught two 16-week classes, one 8-week class, one on-line class. A total of 65 students. One of the classes I taught was not only new – so required intensive seeking out, researching and reading new materials, creation of new lectures each week, and considerable planning initially to get it going in the first place – but was focused on BIG ISSUES that are hard to handle singly, let alone in a barrage over roughly four months.
Add to that that I started writing my dissertation with a plan to be done in 18 months, did a bunch of book signings for my book, gave three talks, and almost finished writing the next novel, an 800+ page tome.
All of this is par for the course, really, so I was a bit confused when two weeks ago I had a week-long breakdown. Woke up one day overwhelmed, and spent a week incapacitated. Well, that might be an overstatement. There was no shivering in bed, no curling into fetal positions with chocolate, no multi-hour TV marathons (okay, maybe that last a little bit… Star-Trek really does help), and no descents into drug or alcohol-induced hazes. No, my breakdown took the form of rebellion against doing anything. I didn’t teach, grade papers, write the next scene or blog post or chapter, and in fact I wasn’t sure I wanted to ever do any of those things again. I didn’t do laundry or dishes. Mostly I fed the dogs, read my book, and went on walks around the neighborhood.
The mood/breakdown/phase passed and things are back to normal, but I had a bit of a revelation somewhere in the middle of the Week-of-Doing-Nothing that has me rethinking privilege and priorities, desire and destruction, and lots of other alliterative approaches to life.
You see, the brand new class I taught this semester was not only about BIG ISSUES, but about how those issues are seemingly unending and insurmountable. We watched films ranging from The 11th Hour to Saving Face, from Osama to What Are We Doing Here, from Syriana to War Dance, Manufactured Landscapes to Miss Representation to The Battle of Algiers, Paradise Now, and Gandhi. Or, for those not familiar with these films, they deal with environmental destruction, acid throwing in Pakistan, the oppression/abuse of women in Afghanistan, Aid and its problems in Africa, the corruption of the oil industry, child soldiers in a country in Africa, industrial waste, the denigrating of women in America, terrorism and its reasons, and resistance to colonialism, respectively.
What I learned, really, more than the details of the issues, was that it’s really hard to spend 16 weeks learning about the state of the world elsewhere, and feel the same about the state of my life here. The fact is that most of the world’s population lives in far far less luxury than I do, than we do – than anyone who has the means to read this post does. And the ultimate takeaway from this class for me was “what are you doing to do about it?”
This was a question a number of my students asked, and more than a few said they felt overwhelmed by the issues, and guilty about the relative ease in which they agonized over things most of the world dreams of being afflicted with – too much stuff, being overweight, stressful school situation, family problems, relationship issues. When your husband has burned your face with acid, that’s a relationship issue. When your parents have died and you, at the age of 15, are taking care of 7 younger siblings – all of whom have AIDS – that’s a family problem. When your school is bulldozed to the ground by a rival tribe or competing social group, that’s a stressful school situation. When you haven’t eaten for five days so you can feed your children, that’s a food issue. And so on.
Everyday issues here pale in comparison.
Like that new couch I want. The old one is… old. It’s a tiny bit torn, it’s got some scratches in the leather. It’s sagging just a bit, if you look at it right. And it’s brown. All perfectly respectable reasons to want a new one, and I’ve found a new one just down the street that won’t cost very much. One quick visit to the store and problem solved, new non-brown couch installed, old one out to the house at the lake, and an entire room of my nice big house would have a fresh, clean, new look.
Sixteen weeks ago it would have been an easy decision.
What are you doing to do about it?