I have been busy with various projects, so it has been a few months since I wrote a blog. This hiatus from writing has given me an opportunity to reflect on the new skills and achievements I gained this year, and I am grateful for my many opportunities and accomplishments. Yet, the most significant improvement for me since leaving my former academic job was learning to release the past after having my sense of self-worth eroded by many years of working in an unhealthy environment.
I wrote in my blog in December that I would not focus on the negative in terms of being in a toxic department. At the time, I was still carrying some resentment. Yet, I knew that holding on to the past would prevent me from living a creative, healthy, and happy life. Any bitterness would only be detrimental to my wellbeing and it would keep me tied to the situation.
From the many blogs, articles, and social media posts I read, a seeming majority of people who decide to leave academia do so because they are exhausted by injurious working conditions. Their self-esteem is shattered and they are holding on to a lot of stress, acrimony, and anger. It took about half a year or so for me to let go of the hurt I felt. However, I am no longer crippled by anxiety and feel much happier and excited about my work than I have done in a long time. As a classicist, I found solace in Stoicism and Epicureanism to help me overcome the trap of negativity.
I knew that holding on to the past would prevent me from living a creative, healthy, and happy life. Any bitterness would only be detrimental to my wellbeing and it would keep me tied to the situation.
To put it far too simply, Stoicism helped me recognize that life is painful. Yet, learning to understand why a painful situation occurred and what I was doing to make it persist, helped me find the peace to move forward. Through Epicureanism, it became acceptable for me to be leave a damaging situation after holding on to what I felt were my obligations to the discipline. This philosophy promotes the belief that there is no afterlife and that to live a good life –the only life one gets – one should avoid pain. So, to be content, Epicureanism insists that we sometimes have to remove ourselves from cruel conditions for our own benefit.
The ways I interpreted and employed these philosophies are as follows:
Learn your lesson from the experience. For me, this is the difficulty but also the reward of Stoicism. I had to be honest and ask myself why I put a detrimental situation ahead of my personal wellbeing for such a long time. The answer: aside from loving my teaching and research, as someone who always takes their responsibilities seriously, I did not want to let my students, department, or university down. Ultimately, I felt entirely responsible for how the department functioned. Yet, I came to understand that I was not solely accountable for it. If I had not come to these understandings, then I would likely end up in a similar situation.
Move away. Epicureanism helped me realize that it was best to remove myself from harm. However, I took this step even further, not only did I leave the institution, I left the region. I moved from the UK back home to the States. I knew that there would be too many painful reminders if I remained in close proximity to the institution, and it would likely lead to me dwelling on the past.
Remove yourself from email lists and delete people from social media. Aside from physically moving, I also found it helpful to remove myself from departmental and university email lists and not to keep anyone on social media whom I did not consider a trustworthy friend or colleague. I also did not want to be tempted to find out about the institution, because I knew that the reminder would only prolong my anger. Initially, my curious nature was enticing me to discover what was going on, but I resisted, and now I simply have no interest. It is very freeing.
Surround yourself with virtuous people who are respectful of themselves and others. I am very fortunate this year to have had the opportunity to work on projects with people who are friendly, creative, responsible, intelligent, and fun. I was also asked to teach in a department and university that promotes mutual respect. In fact, the maxim of the university asks people to be of service to others, and this is instilled in all who work and study in the institution. Nothing is perfect, but being in respectful environments has assisted me regain my self-esteem and sense of joy in what I do. I am also very comfortable with being honest with myself. When I encounter situations that remind me of the past, I will not engage with them.
Remember, no one is perfect. We all have things to learn throughout our lives, so it is beneficial for personal wellbeing to view the situation as a form of self-improvement and growth rather than berating oneself over what could or should have been done. In some respects, this exercise can even be fun!
Simply leaving academia would not resolve all of my problems. I had to learn some harsh lessons to move forward in a positive manner and not “go from the frying pan into the fire.” I also learnt that ancient philosophies still have relevance today, and the techniques I derived from my reading of them worked well for me.
Although everyone will find their own means of dealing with their circumstances, I think the first questions one needs to ask when trying to avoid making the same mistakes are why did you allow yourself to stagnate in an egregious situation and what can you do to avoid repeating it? Remember, “misery loves company,” so do you want to be friends with it or escape from its grips?
A Stoic would likely be very happy with your choice to engage with yourself and situations in an openly honest manner; and an Epicurean would be delighted that you found a way to live a life with less pain and moved on to develop yourself and live a good life surrounded by beautiful people and places rather than one filled with resentment.
Dr. Patty Baker is founder of Pax in Natura and explores what we can learn from the past to help with crises we face today.