The ego of public life, part III

In July of 2013, I started writing publicly every (work) day. Then, after four and a half years, in November 2017, I stopped.

There are a lot of reasons why I started writing — and a lot of reasons why I let the habit go.

I was re-finding myself in 2013. After my father passed away in early 2012, I was absolutely shattered. I spent at least a year and a half just wandering the void; existing in the world without really living in it.

When at last I was ready to start thinking about picking up the pieces, I found I had become a very different person than I had been before. More caring, more compassionate, more acutely aware of the silent struggles we’ve all gotten so good at hiding from the world. And I felt more strongly than ever the need to put my own voice, skills, and energy to work towards the ongoing task of repairing the world.

This was a quandary for me. I’d long been committed to social justice; to doing what I could to make the world just a little bit better than I found it. But, at the same time, I had come to deeply internalize the belief which was consistently reinforced through so many of my experiences in the world: my voice didn’t matter. I didn’t matter.

I had aimed to put my time and energy towards good work simply because that was the right thing to do. It was laughable to think that anything I could do would ever amount to anything or that anyone would ever care for my opinion or insight.

It’s the sort of paradox which only makes sense within the bounded logic of one’s own head. I’d worked hard to elevate the agency of others; I’d argued that the voices and perspectives of all people are critical to building a more just world; I’d put so much of myself into advocating for these ideals — but I had never really believed them. How could I, if I didn’t believe in myself?

In my first post back in 2013, I described this challenge in relation to my plan to start writing publicly:

My struggle with blogging is that…in many ways, it requires a lot of ego. Well, I would say ego, but another may generously say “agency.” It requires standing up and saying, “I do have something to say, and I believe it’s worth your time to listen.” And that can be a lot to muster.

I see this challenge more broadly in the idea of being an active citizen, of truly engaging in public life…Even in smaller acts of engaging. To actively contribute to your community means believing that you have something to actively contribute.

Over the years, this sense of egoism continued to be the hardest struggle for me. Finding time and topics weren’t always easy, but those paled in comparison to the more fundamental challenge of constantly putting myself out there. Of acting like I had something worth saying even when I felt as though I were nothing at all.

But it was a good habit. It made me a better writer. It made me a better thinker. And doing all this writing publicly helped me find my voice. It helped me discovered who I am and showed me that, indeed — words do matter. Much to my surprise, I found that sometimes even my poor, broken words could help.

So I kept writing.

As foolish, egotistical, and self-important as it seemed. I kept writing.

But things changed over the years. I got busier with graduate school, I had other writing tasks I needed to prioritize, I needed to pass my qualifying exams and propose my dissertation. I have no end to my list of practical excuses.

There are reasons and there are reasons, though. Fundamentally, I was scared. I started meeting strangers who would seek me out to tell me how much they loved the way I write; who would tell me that I had somehow managed to put into words something they had been thinking or feeling. I started getting more pushback on every sloppy mistake I made as I rushed to fulfill my self-imposed quota of posting every single day. I started to more deeply appreciate the consequences of my words as actions — while it still seems impossible to imagine, I found that my voice did have power.

As I grappled with these issues in mid-2017, I reflected:

In some ways, public writing feels even more egotistical than before. Being a doctoral student raises the stakes of self-importance; I’m declaring a value for my contributions through my occupation before I even open my mouth. Doctoral students may be nobody in the fiefdoms of academia; but it remains a fairly fancy calling to the rest of the world. I can hardly consider myself to be a nobody while laying claim to the capacity to someday contribute to human knowledge.

This was a lot to take in. How could my voice matter? In what universe would people begin by assuming I was possessed by a comfortable air of self-confidence? What did it mean for me — a person holding so much privilege in this world — to be taking up space?

My writing started to feel like less of an exercise of civic duty and self-discovery and more of a venue for self-aggrandizement.

At the same time, I was becoming less impressed with the quality of my writing overall. I’d gotten tired, lazy — relying on tired tropes of self-righteousness without thorough thought or depth. This tone was popular in some circles, but it did little to advance the sort of dialogue I want to pursue. It didn’t reflect the sort of writer, scholar, or person I wanted to be.

So I stopped.

I’d once needed to find myself through writing in public and then I needed to find myself by reflecting in private.

But I’ve missed this. I’ve missed the intentional thought that comes from public writing. I’ve missed the ongoing learning I’ve gained through on- and offline conversations about my posts. I’ve missed hearing thoughtful criticism of my views and my writing — I remain grateful to every person who has trusted me enough to tell me when they think I’m wrong or when I could have expressed myself better. I’ve missed making time to think about things beyond what’s required of me.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve continually caught myself “writing in my head” as I used to do all the time. I’m not quite sure where that voice went in the fervor and anxiety of the past year, but I’ve started to realize that I need and value this space. Something has changed in me once again, it seems.

All of this is to say: I’m back. I won’t be posting every day, but I will be posting regularly — at least once a week.

I will write about science, math, social justice, and democratic theory. I will write about mental health and graduate school and random facts I picked up somewhere. I will write about whatever I need to say that week.

As always, I invite your thoughtful reflections as I continue this journey. We will certainly not always agree, but I will value your perspectives and consider your arguments seriously and genuinely.

They say that democracy is dead — that people can’t talk about anything of import any more. But I don’t believe that. I refuse to believe that. Democracy’s not dead — it’s only resting.

I look forward to learning from you all.

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