Last year I wrote a piece called “It’s just work” about how I manage grad school and its tendency to expand to fill all my time. I was reminded of that piece recently after a conversation I had with a Dominican priest, who remarked that one of the ways religious life works is that it schedules in prayer. It doesn’t just loosely assign it—say the office at some point today—but it schedules it in, he emphasized. The day is built around God, and so it becomes more obvious that the day is his.
I was reminded of it again yesterday as I sat typing in my office across from a classmate who once shared with me that she gets through grad school by working 9–5 every day, no more, no less.
And I was reminded of it again this morning after reading Andrea Long Chu’s brilliant essay about working with Avital Ronell at NYU. Long Chu contextualizes Ronell’s abuse of a grad student in an academic culture that is fundamentally abusive to grad students. “The humanities are sadistic for most people, especially when you aren’t a white man. This is understood to be normal.”
It’s not just work. I’d like it to be, but it’s not. I’ve been minimizing how hard this is, and I’m not going to do that anymore. Self-care is an important practice, but it has become an ugly adage akin to the latte theory of personal finance: there’s no amount of free yoga on the quad that will make this high-pressure environment effortlessly navigable. And more importantly, it is deeply unreasonable to expect myself to be totally emotionally divorced from the task that occupies the overwhelming majority of my time.
It’s not just work when I go into a classroom to teach. Those students—almost all first-years—trust me to help them grow, to attend to their anxieties, to guide them through a transition that terrifies them more than they want to admit. And it’s not just work when I go into a classroom to learn, either. My classmates trust me to handle their mistakes with gentleness, and I have to trust them to see beyond mine too. We are all doing a delicate dance of expectations, uncertainty, precarity, as we discuss subjects about which our ignorance weighs heavily on us in front of people who hold our immediate fortune in their hands. That’s why it’s not just work when I go into a meeting with the faculty as the student representative, or when I analyze a book someone put her life into. There’s tension lurking everywhere in this work, and it’s a delicate undertaking, one that requires a lot of patience and grace.
In my original piece, I walked readers through my daily schedule, and paused to point out where I was able to take control and channel it toward my own priorities. For instance, I spent more time on teaching than I’m “supposed” to, because it brings me joy—and I spent less time reading for class, because it brought me little. Rereading it now, I’m struck by what wasn’t in my day: breakfast, prayer, a full night’s sleep.
I’m looking at my schedule differently now, because it’s not just work. It’s vocation, in the most basic sense: it is the time, place, and occupation that providence has ordered toward my holiness at the moment. If I keep looking at my work like it’s an accident, an emotionless void that simply interferes with my “real” life, I will never see providence’s hand in it. I have to start looking at it like he does, like an opportunity for encounters with grace, like one long prayer.
I’ve started rather literally. I bookended class this morning with lauds, praying the first half beforehand and picking up afterward with the petitions. It changes everything to walk into class having just been cautioned by St. Paul not to speak any unedifying words. (Especially when you teach an 8am.) It changes everything to return to my office and ask God to consecrate the day. I’ve been going to daily mass, too—providence smirking knowingly, he has placed the chapel directly on my path from my office to the library—and eating three meals a day. I’ve been sleeping a full eight hours. I’ve been nourishing myself, not because I understand it as a priority, but because God does.
I’ve made these hard rules for myself about eating, sleeping, and praying not just because they are good in themselves, but because it is good for me to learn to obey my past self. I have a tendency to let anxiety relitigate my every commitment on a daily basis: I know I said I’d lesson plan chapter 7 today, but isn’t it more important to get started on that term paper? I know I said I’d go to mass today, but isn’t staying in the library a more productive use of my time? I know I said I like this neighborhood, but wouldn’t life be easier if I moved closer to work? Periodic, discerning self-reflection is good, but this type of incessant self-berating is completely exhausting. God is liberating me from that, as from so many other things.
It’s not just work, he is saying, it’s your life, and you need to strengthen yourself for the journey.