The Noble Cause
I went to the dentist today. Not a most favorite activity but an oddly positioned one in terms of timing. What other person (or force, even) do you see every six months? That’s a bizarre timeframe. A week or two—we all have people we see in that timeframe. Years are what school reunions are for. Yes, we’re all fatter, we’ve grown up (most of us) and have mortgages and children or dogs we treat as children. That’s a long time frame. But six months is just middling: not long enough for major changes but too long for any kind of comfort or intimacy. It’s an awkward middle ground. Yes, you’re a stranger and, yes, your hands are also in my mouth and your face is inches from mine. If I knew you better, it would be more natural to kiss you than to do what we’re doing now.
Nevertheless, the dentist who is a kind, lovely man asks me, “So…are we done yet?” By “we” he means me, by “done yet” he means my dissertation. And I say, “Yes! Done!” And he says, “So you’re a doctor now?” “Yep.” “Cool.”
“Cool,” he says. “Cool.”
I thought about that response for days afterward. I found it funny and then annoying and then callous and flippant. I had all the judgmental reactions one over-thinker could have. And then, finally, after almost a week, it dawned on me that while most people who knew me lived around me during this time, the intensity of it was mine alone. In the six months since he saw me last, my dentist probably saw hundreds of patients (one of whom has something major to do with Taylor Swift and another who is a fundraiser for Hilary Clinton…if she gets elected in 2016, he’ll end up an ambassador to a small island nation). In that same six months, I walked up to my greatest ambition and fear and conquered it, not without sustaining some serious scarring. Everything has changed for me; the molecules of life align differently now for me. I’m a different person, for better or worse, lying in that dentist chair wearing orange protective eyewear and a splattered paper bib. Just another patient gone an done something “cool.” I’ll certainly never be one-degree of separation from Taylor Swift and definitely never an ambassador, even to the Seychelles.
This is one of the most immediately lessons I’m learning about the “after” of PhD life, of dissertation madness. My intention at the beginning of all of this was noble: I wanted to expand my mind and teach others and sit around and think important things…maybe wear tweed and cool glasses. I felt like it was something important and impressive I was undertaking. I don’t know if it was the process or me that changed throughout but that seems like the dumbest thing I ever could have thought, especially now that I’m on the other side and I’ve witnessed firsthand the grime of ill-conceived condescension and broken humanity that is the sorry, sorry state of academia now in this country. Why did I ever want to be here? There is nothing noble here. Only puffery and insecurity.
It’s made me wonder about nobility altogether and maybe that’s the lesson: nobility as an end is a fool’s paradise. It’s not there. It’s just a story.