This week has been an interesting one for me. I finally emptied my office and closed the door on my career as an academic. It was sobering and exciting in equal measure, and it’s a shift in my life I really need to reflect on. Part of my difficulty with life in general is that I rarely take any time to think about how I feel. One thing I am certain of is that I need time to recover from being an academic, it is a mindset and a way of life that has enormous benefits, but, that also makes enormous demands.
Part of the problem from my perspective is that I placed my happiness, even my self worth, in the hands of others. I needed their attention. Students, colleagues, policy makers, and, most importantly of all, the wider academic community. I wanted to be heard, I wanted to be the expert, to be revered. For the most part it was to lay the ghosts of my past to rest, after all, I’d been told often enough as a child that I was worthless, that I was stupid, and that I would amount to nothing. Not by my family but by a system that valued money and status. At school I was the council estate kid; the poor boy with no future to look forward to.
And I am not alone in this. I see the need for recognition everywhere, the underlying desperation for the validation of others. When I was young I was watching Wimbledon, when a game being played between two people in wheelchairs came on. I fully expected my sister to praise and applaud it, she was in a wheelchair herself, and faced innumerable humiliations and exclusions as part of her daily existence. A few minutes in and it became obvious that people were leaving the court. I was outraged: ‘that’s terrible,’ I said, ‘they should stay and watch.’ Instead of agreeing, my sister replied: ‘why? they have the right to play, but they don’t have the right to make people watch.’
At the time I was puzzled by this, but over time I came to the conclusion that she was right. I mistook their right to play for the right to be watched because I thought their validity was dependent on being seen, that the observers gave them legitimacy. But that was never true. They were valid because they played.
And I see people making the same mistake every day.
I spend time on Twitter trying to connect people by creating lists of accounts for others to follow. I see it as a duty and a means of building a coalition of progressives able to change the world. Right wing nonsense has been dominant for too long. Selfishness, greed, growth, status, wealth, these are all norms that created most of the horrors we see in the world. I make lists so that people can feel supported, and provide a means of organising, actively challenging the current world order.
But the times I’ve been criticised for it, even condemned for it, by some of the progressives I want to reach, has surprised me. Generally, the source of their annoyance is a lack of attention. They dismiss what I do as concentrating on the quantity rather than the quality of followers/friends, then they state how superior they are by focusing on fewer, but ‘real’ friends and followers. The irony of course, is that many of them simply want more friends/followers themselves. How do I know? because they complain that they say enormously important things but are ignored, while I am driven by numbers. They are placing their happiness, if not their self worth in the hands of others. Is their message any less valid because few people respond to it? Of course not.
Similarly, I see people on social media have meltdowns and tantrums because no-one seems to hear what they say. In a fit of pique they will say things like: ‘I might as well not exist,’ or ‘I’ll just go back to my corner then’. In doing so, they are placing their existence in the hands of others. That is not a healthy place to be, even though I understand it. Their existence is invalidated by the absence of attention on social media? No way. They are valuable, meaningful, simply BECAUSE they exist.
YOU are valuable and meaningful simply by dint of your existence. You are not important because people listen to you, you are important because you choose to speak, even when others fail or refuse to listen. Yell, scream, repeat your truth, you have that right. Eventually, others may hear you, or they may not, but either way, your words matter, you matter, and those truths are real regardless of the views or opinions of others.