Thursday, 16 April 2015

'And what then?'

There are times when studying the past makes modern life seem easier, and times when it makes it seem much, much worse. Sanitation, and life expectancy, and health in general fall into the first category; in the second category comes the process of applying for jobs, which is currently absorbing a large part of my time and energy. (Other things fit into that category too, but I won't start listing them.) When caught up in the humiliations and absurdities of modern job-hunting, it's all too tempting to daydream about living in another time and place: to imagine what it would be like to live in an age when a person might be valued for more than just their career, or to wonder how it would feel not to live your life under constant review, always trying to deal with the prospect of failure and perpetually striving to win the approval of strangers.

There's hardly been a month in the past ten years of my life when I haven't been in the process of applying for something - jobs, university courses, research projects, conferences, publications, etc., etc. - and although a good number of those applications have been successful, the success, in retrospect, feels very brief, compared to all the time spent living with the fear of failure; the anxiety of applying and the tension of waiting, plus the inevitable rejections along the way, far overwhelm the fleeting happiness that comes with success. Living like this takes an emotional toll which you're not really allowed to talk about; all those things are opportunities, after all, and you readers (being I know mostly older than me, well advanced in your careers or safely retired) are doubtless shaking your heads as you read this, itching to give me a lecture about how ungrateful I am not to appreciate all the choices and opportunities of youth. (Please, restrain yourselves.) I know choice is a privilege but it can feel like a burden, especially when you have no one to help you with your decisions; and things which look like opportunities are so often just more chances to be weighed down by rejection and fear and guilt. I know I'm supposed to be grateful for all this, but it would be nice to be happy, too, just for a little bit.

This insecurity is probably an inescapable part of modern life, and it's not even just the sick state of academia that's the problem, for once; I can't imagine any career I might have that would give me a sense of long-term security, let alone freedom from the feeling of being constantly reviewed, assessed and judged. It's usually better for my peace of mind not to remember that it's such a recent development, that people haven't always lived like this, and there have in the past been societies with healthier attitudes to work and life than ours. But studying the past can provide consolations too; so let me share with you a story which cheers me up when I'm worrying about the career choices in front of me. If you're in a similar case, it might cheer you up too.

It's a story from the Vita Anselmi by Eadmer, and it describes a career dilemma which confronted the young Anselm when he was about twenty-six years old. That would have been around the year 1059, and Eadmer's account is based on what Anselm told him more than thirty years later; by that time Anselm was Archbishop of Canterbury, and one of the most respected scholars in Europe.

Anselm had reached his mid-twenties without committing himself to any particular profession. As a devout child he had wanted to become a monk, but on his first attempt to do so, at the age of fifteen, he was rejected by an abbot who feared the wrath of Anselm's worldly father. After this setback, his youthful ardour cooled. (Rejection sucks.) His mother died, and 'the ship of his heart had, as it were, lost its anchor, and drifted almost entirely among the waves of the world.' Finding he could not live peacefully with his father, Anselm left home, crossed the Alps, and travelled around rather aimlessly for a while. He ended up in Normandy, drawn by the scholarly fame of Lanfranc, who was at that time prior of Bec. He became Lanfranc's pupil and 'gave himself up day and night to literary studies', but began to wonder about his former wish to be a monk. Eadmer says (in Vita Sancti Anselmi, ed. and trans. R. W. Southern (London, 1962), pp. 6-11):
And what then? He turned over in his mind where he could best bring to pass what he desired, and he argued thus with himself: "Well, then, I shall become a monk. But where? If at Cluny or at Bec, all the time I have spent in study will be lost. For at Cluny the severity of the order, and at Bec the outstanding ability of Lanfranc, who is a monk there, will condemn me either to fruitlessness or insignificance. Let me therefore carry out my plan somewhere where I can both display my knowledge and be of service to others."

He often used to playfully to recount these thoughts of his [i.e. later in life], and he would add, "I was not yet tamed, and there was not yet in me any strong contempt of the world. Hence when I said this, as I thought, out of love for others, I did not see how damnable it was."

He turned to Lanfranc for advice:

He came to him and told him that he was undecided between three courses of action, but that he would hold to the one which Lanfranc judged best and reject the other two. He expounded to him the three aims, as follows: "I want," he said, "either to be a monk, or to dwell in a hermitage, or to live on my family estate, ministering so far as I can to the poor, in God's name, if you advise it" - for his father had died by this time and all the inheritance had come to him. "Know then, my lord Lanfranc, that these are the three things between which my will fluctuates; but I beg that you will stablish me in the one which you think best." Lanfranc hesitated to give an opinion and advised rather that the matter should be taken to be heard by the venerable Maurilius, archbishop of Rouen. Anselm acquiesced in this plan, and together with Lanfranc he went to the archbishop... They came to the bishop, explained the reason for their coming, and asked him what he thought about it. Without hesitation the monastic life was extolled beyond the others, and the monastic profession recommended beyond all others. Anselm heard and approved. Then, setting aside all else, he left the world and became a monk at Bec, being then in his twenty-seventh year.

A year younger than me. What's rather odd, but endearing, about this story is that Anselm's concerns are very worldly - this is, after all, not just a career choice but a religious vocation, yet he admits he was more concerned with how to use his intellectual gifts (how to 'display my knowledge and be of service to others') than with how to serve God. His unwillingness to stay at Bec because he feared being overshadowed by the famous Lanfranc is a particularly credible detail - very plausible in an embryo scholar, conscious of his gifts but young enough to be anxious about getting recognition! That's part of what makes me like this story so much, and it also amuses me that Lanfranc's reaction is pretty unhelpful (why was he so hesitant in recommending monastic life?). But it's mostly comforting just to hear a story which admits that choice can be difficult. How on earth are you supposed to decide what to do with your life, when the decision appears to be a matter of free choice, but the consequences are so entirely beyond your control? Anselm could never have imagined that his decision at the age of twenty-six would lead him to the position he was in when he told this story - he could never have begun to guess that from being a monk of Bec he would become Archbishop of Canterbury, and would tell this tale to a young Englishman who, not yet born when it took place, would record it for posterity.

I wonder what Eadmer made of this story when Anselm 'playfully' told it to him, because it must have been quite alien to his own experience; Eadmer was entered into the monastery at Christ Church, Canterbury, as a child oblate, and never had a moment of choice in his vocation like the one Anselm described. His life was laid out for him by his parents at the age of seven, and he never really deviated from it. (I envy that, a bit!) And I wonder too in what context Anselm told this story. Just as a playful tale against himself? As a warning against boyish arrogance? Or for a kinder purpose? Elsewhere in the Vita Eadmer describes Anselm's humane philosophy of education, his belief that young people need not strictness but "gentleness from others, kindness, compassion, cheerful encouragement, loving forbearance, and much else of the same kind". Telling stories about your own failings can be part of that, of course. The young and inexperienced make such silly mistakes, and those in positions of power often think it's their role to judge and criticise them rather than to show compassion. They demand from their juniors more than was expected from themselves, and are merciless if their impossible expectations are not met; anything less than perfection is failure, and if you find that hard to bear, it must be your own weakness. Imagine if Lanfranc had said to Anselm, as many a powerful person might have done, 'if you don't know what you want to do with your life by the age of 26, I can't help you!' What a difference kindness makes. It would be nice to think that Anselm told this story about himself to encourage the troublesome, restless young monks over whose problems we know he took special care. I always appreciate it very much when successful people tell stories about their youthful errors and failures - I'm sure it takes courage to do so, but it can be immensely helpful. Surely everyone has had times in their life when they worried about what was going to happen to them, but not everyone is prepared to admit it. Sometimes it seems that later in life people forget what it's like to have your future stretching out in front of you, completely unknowable and out of your control; they tend to romanticise it, telling you how lucky you are to have so many choices still ahead of you. Perhaps as you grow older you forget how terrifying that thought can be, how hopeless and lonely it can make you feel. Maybe Anselm was wiser - I'd like to think so.


Well, all this is a perfect example of how not to blog while you're applying for jobs and seeking the approval of strangers. I can only post it because I'm currently, for a week or so, between applications, but I think I'll delete this post before I submit the next application. Can't admit to doubt or weakness when someone might be googling you and judging you!

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

Good luck with the applications! I love your candor about the profession & hate to think you will take down this post (but understand if you do!). My husband and I have both become big fans of your scholarship/blog. Thank you! R.

Kiwicanuck said...

No judgements whatsoever. Everyone you mentioned has gone through the same thing, and we're all (I'm sure) glad as hell not to be going through it again. It sucks. I wish you only the very best of luck with your applications. You write beautifully, and are clearly passionate about your work. Your blog is a delight to read.

David Wilson said...

Maybe Lanfranc didn't immediately suggest Anselm come to Bec because he knew how brilliant he was and didn't want the competition either! Good luck with everything!

Allouette said...

I think that you have got it right! I am one of the retired, etc., a baby-boomer and we should not forget just how fortunate we were. Job finding was easy, we didn't need to worry about the future, we could buy a house, have a family and still work. Yes, there were fewer choices but nowadays there are far too many in almost every sphere. Older people need to carefully consider just what it means to be young and have no idea what the future holds.
The story about Anselm is really good.

Aine said...

This is a great post and I hope you keep it up. It really resonates with me and it might remind some people how scary a place academia can be, so full of uncertainty. Good luck with the job search!

Sally said...

Thank you for posting this. As someone else currently in career-choice-application limbo, it's lovely to read all the same worries from both a current seeker (you) and a historical one. May we all find such fulfilling paths as Anselm--and similarly, not forget the emotions that we carry now.

Michael Demers said...

I have a nephew who is teaching English in South Korea since he simply couldn't find a job teaching at a college here in the States.

Clerk of Oxford said...

Thanks, everyone.

Anonymous said...

And what then is a question we all ask ourselves regardless of age. I loved reading what you have written, I am new to your site and look forward to new posts. I particularly enjoyed this one. You revealed yourself here. As someone who is retired I envy you the things you look on as a struggle.Your doors to life choices present themselves. We will not always succeed as we open the door, but they are there for us to choose. As we age the doors become few but rejection is still there. I youth you still have the time for more doors to present themselves. With age the time is there but there is much less of it.
Thank you for telling of Anselm's journey. He has special meaning for me as a Benedictine Oblate who took his name at my oblate on.

Tim W. said...

Well I'm roughly your age and can somewhat relate. My job is pretty locked in but advancing to any kind of superior position has proved difficult. It can seem like all the options are bad ones. It's nice to hear that similar things happened back then.
Good luck with your job search. As bad as it can be I think you are lucky to get to do something you love.

Christene said...

We are roughly around the same age and pretty much in the same boat (except I haven't finished school yet)... and yes the stress if often overwhelming. The constant seeking of approval makes one feel worthless. I totally understand why you would take this down - I wrote a similar post about my dissertation problems a few months down that I often consider eliminating for the same reasons - but I am not sure this is a sign of weakness as much as a show of humanity. We are not automatons, nor are we perfect.

Your blog, and erudition in general, are highly impressive, and Fortune's wheel is ever in motion :)

John Woodman said...

This seems as good a place as any to say thank you for the pleasure that I have had since discovering your blog a couple of weeks ago. Actually, make that delight. I hope that your current situation is not too intolerable and that you will continue to produce the finest blog that I know and to provide me with a wonderful selection of images for use as my screensaver.