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Meaningfulness 1.1


What do you call two words — a binary pair — that seem to mean the same thing, but don’t? That appear to be interchangeable, but aren’t. If it’s not a figure of speech, it ought to be. My world the last few years has been shaped by such binary pairs, pairs like: seeing ≠ looking; intimacy ≠ sex; spirituality ≠ religion; justice ≠ the law; power ≠ control; closure ≠ cloture; education ≠ training; drama ≠ theater; being careful ≠ being cautious; acceptance ≠ resignation; knowing contentment ≠ knowing happiness. The last pair harken to Viktor Frankl’s 1946 book Man’s Search for Meaning. I was one year old at the time of publication, but couldn’t read. If only, I could have avoided a lot of couch time.


Among the simple truths I’ve learned through guided introspection is this: Happiness is rare and, frankly, an unnatural condition. If it were the norm — if happiness were the baseline of our emotional lives — I shudder to consider the cost of its maintenance, both financial and psychological. We see it everywhere. It’s on T.V. Hell, it is T.V. It’s at movie theaters and it sells there because the audience want to adapt the artifice on the screen as their daily lives. Films are a “How To” manual for happiness. But it simply can’t be done, and the avoidance of that truth keeps the psychological profession in business. I should know.

The binary pair that was a subject for discussion in many sessions with Dr Bob was Contentment–Happiness, because the first half of that pair is far easier to achieve and far less costly to maintain. And while I have learned that about contentment, I haven’t fully mastered its sustenance. Here you may logically concern yourselves with another pair: Acceptance–Resignation.

Contentment is far easier to attain than full blown happiness, but don’t conflate it with second-rate happiness: Happiness Lite. I accept contentment as a natural condition but it is hardly neutral. From that platform I may occasionally reach the heights of joy, but I can also see the abyss that Depressives know is just a misstep away. And, by and large, it’s sustainable. My contentment has been shaken, however, by the very place that allows me to experience and sustain it; the place that has been my primary source of contentment: l’acadême.

Outside Looking In

April Yamasaki, pastor of a Protestant congregation in British Columbia, has blogged about attendance at academic conferences and her sense of being an impostor in the midst of “real” academics. From her I learned of “Impostor Phenomenon” and finally have a label to identify my situation for the last forty-five years.

The academic world is vastly different than it was in the fall of 1971, as I drove a U-haul truck into Fargo. The job offer was (I learned later) an act of desperation on the department’s part when the candidate they really wanted backed out. I was one of five new faculty in a department of nine. We could have had faculty meetings in the corner booth at Country Kitchen. The chair changed and Old Main might as well have installed a revolving door. And toward the end of my sixth year I was tenured. That is standard practice; what isn’t is that I have no recollection of making application. Because I didn’t. Tenure and a promotion (from Instructor to Assistant Professor) simply happened.

Something similar happened with the shift from Assistant to Associate. But the character of Higher Ed has changed dramatically, become far more bureaucratic. There’s an on-line form for everything and an on-line admonition and what to expect for fucking up. But whether on the old “Mom & Pop” system or the new-but-not-necessarily-improved version, one thing is true:I have always been on the outside looking in.

The Academy and I are a bad fit. Identification of the “Impostor Phenomenon” has come along just in time to bolster my sense of meaningfulness.

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