(2013 – Why I am an Artist and not an Academic)
In 1998, I quit a Ph.D. in physics. Now I spend my hours studying and (sometimes) teaching yoga, meditating, and reading as much as I possibly can in the hours between practical home-related tasks. The question is, how did I get from there to here?
The proximal cause of the first step was exhaustion and disillusionment. I leaned into my partner’s arms one evening, and said, “I can’t do this any more. I have no time to think.” (It was several more months before I acknowledged that I really meant it.)
In the intervening years I have become convinced that the rational approach to world-knowing (in which I was raised) is inadequate to the task of being fully human. Not only that, but getting good enough at it to make a living with it took up so much of my life that there was no space left for that other frivolous task of finding meaning. I’ve been trying to figure out for decades which pieces were missing. As a result, I have also been known to dance naked in the moonlight in the presence of mystery and talk about chakras without rolling my eyes. I want you to know all that up front, so that none of it comes as a sneaky surprise if you got here from a single post that leans in the rational direction. Many of mine do.
It was all about the questions.
When I was a teenager, I wanted to know everything. Everything. The meaning of life, how the universe worked, what was on the other side of a black hole, whether there really was a god, if there was a god, what kind of god was he. Or she. I read Richard Feynman and Stephen Hawking and mathematical treatises and went to science camp and did Junior Achievement and drama and choir and horseback riding and studied electrical circuits and computer graphics and Russian. All before I was 18. I was/am relentlessly curious.
But I walked the path of the academic, and that path demands allegiance to the stories of the tribe. And The Tribe is not “the group of people seeking answers” or even “the group of people who are academics”. It is “the group of people who are the same kind of academic as you.”
It was not enough.
In the space in which I learned to be a Useful Adult who Helps Think About Things, this is what I was taught to do:
For a significant fraction of the people working in science, any question that you can’t do that with isn’t a real question. It isn’t just a question that they don’t know how to answer, but it is, in their minds, an unanswerable, and therefore, unaskable question. Or at least “ill-posed” and likely a waste of time.
Here is a non-exhaustive list of what keeps me up at night, the things I am driven to do:
- find root cause
- seek overlapping patterns
- tease out
- build bridges
You might note the non-overlapping sets. I have all the skills in the first set, I even reach for them when called for, but they don’t set me on fire.
I love ideas the way other people love wine or chocolate. I can taste them. I roll them around in my mind and feel them in my body. They thrill me. But I’m unfaithful. Deeply so. I’ll read Foucault in the morning and debate the proper techniques for teaching calculus in the afternoon. I can’t keep myself in the game long enough to… well… win, I guess. (Any game which involves tenure exceeds my attention span, I fear.)
In the midst of my Ph.D. program, I became obsessed with the following question: But why can’t people be nicer? (Why don’t we share? Why don’t we take care of one another? Why are we willing to drive other species to extinction? Why do we let people freeze to death in the streets in one of the wealthiest countries in the world?) This is not a set of questions that will carry you through a doctoral program in the physical sciences. (1)
When I say, “I quit,” it is accurate insofar as I consciously withdrew from the program, went to the final meeting of my committee, told them that I was leaving, and walked out of the building. What is more accurate, though, is to say that I snapped. I came in one morning, sat down at my lab bench, and started to cry.
In an old box, veteran of a couple of moves, I recently found a copy of my prescription for antidepressants. I filled it on my 27th birthday.
I am now 41, and I’ve spent the last 14 years trying to answer the questions that drove me to madness. I’ve studied psychology and education and philosophy and postcolonialism and literature and meditation and yoga and magic and more science and myth. And the conclusion that I’ve come to is this: Because we’re scared. We can’t be nicer because we’re scared to be. We can’t be curious because it’s not practical. We can’t be creative because we’ve got to pay the bills. We can’t be generous because we’ll lose ground. We can’t share our ideas because they’ll be stolen.
Every one of those statements is a story, not the world as it is, was, and ever more shall be. They are models that have certain realms of truth, but which arise from our hidden depths unbidden, and attempt to predict and control the entire world around us. We look for confirmations, dismiss contradictions, and keep ourselves trapped in stories that no longer serve, and whose collective effect is to produce the very things they speak of with dread. Call it panopticon, call it samsara, call it disordered thinking… the label and precise description of how it works will depend on your lenses. But all these stories point to something real, and it is part of the phenomena that we need to deal with.
I am convinced that the world could be a better place if we learned how to stop being scared and started really reaching out to one another. We could be creative, and well-fed, and healthy, and joyful, and more fully human… we could stop substituting status for intimacy and learn the joys of being fully seen… and we could stop creating suffering for others in a constant attempt to ensure our own security.
I’m also convinced that we (collectively) know how, somewhere, even if we (individually) are still struggling. Somewhere in the deep recesses of our knowledge traditions are the stories and tools we need to accomplish this, even if the dominant stories all point to (and create/reinforce) its impossibility. Conversely, I also believe that we (individually) are able to find paths to this, even if we (collectively) believe that it is an impossible task.(2)
These are not scientific questions. They are questions of heroic struggle, and myth, and story, culture, and self. But there is also the question of how all these things work to make a world liveable for small creatures in an unfathomably vast universe who are aware of their own mortality. Which is, as I go full circle, where the science can come back into it.
Come swim with me in the ocean of ideas, the universe of possibilities, ever connecting to the thread that we are not in this chaos alone.
1. If you must know, using neutron scattering to study spin states of exotic compounds.
2. This is a complete break-down of the pronoun “we”. The first refers to “all the collective knowledge of the human species”. The second means “you and me who are involved in the communication via this writing.” The third is sort of an abstract “we” that really means “I think I’m on this path, and I invite you to consider joining me.” And the last is “the we who are included in the dominant culture, and since I’m pretty sure that at least some of the people reading this are already committed to this work, and have concluded that the human species may very well wind up extinct if we don’t do it, it might really mean ‘they’ except in moments of despair.”