Should I quit academe?

I own a cottage. I could go live there and work in a cafe. You think I should?

By Cary Tennis
November 14, 2012 6:00AM (UTC)
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(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Hi Cary,

I'm suffering from a high-class problem that I wonder if you can reframe for me. I turned 40 this year. I've been working at a tenure-track academic job for three years, after 10 years as a student. For the past 12 years I've been living abroad in North America and Asia. I was materially comfortable in each location, but being in places without the kind of cultural depth that is my European inheritance, and among people whose values I don't really have much common ground with, I felt like I was breathing oxygen-depleted air. Over time it became exhausting.


Added to this, I increasingly don't care about any of the conversations going on in my academic field. I've stopped keeping up with scholarship and started reading and writing whatever I want. My few publications are in different fields from the one in which I got my Ph.D., and they have a mystical bent that borders on flakiness by the standards of this profession. I no longer fit any of the categories in which I might get a new job, and the chances of being able to move closer to home are therefore slim. I may be committing slow professional suicide, but probably I could survive in my present position for the rest of my career if I wanted to. I might even evolve into something that would make a different kind of sense within academe, and eventually be able to change jobs.

I'm in the enviable position of having reached a goal that I spent years working toward. I always had grants and fellowships and lived within my means, so I have no debt. I've never been able to commit to a relationship that would mean staying in a foreign country permanently, so I'm  single with no dependents. I just bought a tiny cottage in my home town, which I own outright. I also have enough money saved to live on for a year or more. I want to quit my job, and live in the cottage, and work part-time at something menial where I can think my own thoughts. I want to live a simple life and try to write books and articles aimed at a non-academic audience.

The snag is that my home country is in a deep economic depression. A lot of people would kill to have the kind of job I have. My parents would be horrified if I gave it up to go work in a cafe or a bar, if I could even find such work. Perhaps I'm not thinking straight, and I'd soon be trapped in the city of my upbringing that I once couldn't wait to get out of, with my disapproving relatives saying, "I told you so," and no money left to get myself out of there again. Perhaps it's no longer anything like the place I seem to remember from 22 years ago when I left. Yet, I think incessantly about going back there, to reconnect with my roots, and to live in a community where I make sense. Whatever its economic condition, I think the place I come from has soul, unlike the  East Asian Disneyland where I currently live.


So should I bide my time, wait until I've redefined myself as an academic and stand a chance of getting another job in a more congenial place; or wait for the world economy to get better and change careers? Or should I just leave? I'm in middle age. Life is short. I don't want to grow any older here.


Dear Crossroads,


The mystical writing you have been doing indicates that you are ripe for self-exploration. You do not have to quit your job to do this. You can begin right where you are. It is an interior journey.

The cottage, for instance, represents a home. You do not have a home within yourself. That is what you need. There is no room for you inside yourself right now. The academic is crowding out the soul. So you dream of this cottage, owned outright, where you could be yourself and be at home. But this cottage exists within you. It is perhaps too cluttered right now with exams and papers and the buzzing, click-clacking academic speech that masquerades as knowledge. But there is a cottage within you that is owned outright and is waiting for you to occupy it. Go there. Go to that cottage. Occupy it. Look around you in the cottage. What do you see? Who is there? Is it your mother? Is she smiling at you and offering you some eggs on a plate, with English muffin toast and marmalade, and a napkin and knife and fork? Is she wearing that same apron? Is there light coming in the kitchen windows, filtered by a tall pine you remember seeing as a child? Or is the cottage empty with just a box to sit on and no curtains on the windows and no academic journals? Is there a bookshelf in the cottage? What books are on it? Imagine you are in this cottage and you take a book down from the shelf and begin reading. What book is it?


Clear some time from your schedule. Enter this cottage. Explore.

I don't know you. I don't know where you are. I only know that at the heart of every problem is our longing to return to a bliss we only dimly remember, and that every cottage, every temple and every church bell we hear ringing is a symbol of a desire to return to a bliss we only dimly remember.  That's all I know and it is almost enough to get me through the day.

Say you are a character in a novel stranded in an East Asian academic setting and you are feeling a longing for something you can't define. You are sitting in your apartment. Look around you. What object does your gaze fall upon? Do you fasten upon a knife on the table or a bell on the shelf, or do you pick up the phone or take a book off the shelf or grab a coat and hat and go out the door into the dark restaurant in the middle of the shady side of the street and order your usual noodles and tea, and the usual woman serves you, and you watch her disappear back into the kitchen and wonder if she knows your name.


You get what I'm saying? The world mirrors our longings; so maybe you go down the stairs and you meet someone on the road and you ask, How long have you been waiting for me? and the person says, Come with me, we have to meet someone, and you go behind the building and there is a child lying on the ground, the child has been throwing up and the person says he needs medical attention, you must help, you must take him with you. So you take the child to the clinic and the doctor has blood on his white smock and he looks at the child and you want something from him but do not know the dialect and so he directs you to take the boy by the hand and give him some water in the lobby. In the lobby is a goat on a rope held by an old woman in a tan skirt, barefoot, toothless, with matted hair and eyes the color of hazelnuts.

And so you meet your relatives. They are relatives you didn't know you had. They say things to you. They suggest what to do next.  These things happen when you inquire what the world asks of you. Since you are not separate from the world, and not in control of the world, but a servant of the world and its creation, you go out into the world to find out what the world requires of you. That is how you decide whether to quit your job: Not by figuring out the details and what is convenient but by finding out what it is that you are seeking.

This will seem crazy at first, to you and also to the many people who are reading this, scratching their heads. After all, what you are reading here is the contents of my unconscious, not yours. It exists here only as an example. But after a while, if you begin a similar journey, you will begin to meet the phantoms of your own inner life, and they will direct you. Maybe they will tell you, definitely, quit your job. Or maybe they will say you are exactly where you need to be. You must first learn to hear their voices and to trust that they know what they're talking about.

Cary Tennis

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