On emotional output

I’m in the middle of what can only be described as bureaucratic hell. Coupled with personal issues. Coupled with other problems that keep adding up. I know two things about myself: I am emotionally transparent, and that can be a huge flaw (especially in England); but I am also strong. This combination of emotional vulnerability and strength is a trait I’ve seen in others in my family, especially my mum. And it means that when things are tough, we are strange creatures.

But, not so strange too; perhaps really, we are like so many other women, because we are expected to be. I’ve been thinking today about emotional output. You see, in academia, there is a lot of talk about ‘output’; publications, research, teaching metrics, etc., etc., etc. This is easy to measure (if somewhat simplistic in its assumption that we can indeed measure learning and knowledge and critical thinking and the development of a human mind in such neat metrics and concrete output – but never mind, this post really isn’t about academia per se, and you’ve heard these arguments before, and no one really cares about them, and this is the way the world turns, etc.etc.etc.). What is not easy to measure, and indeed, what rarely gets acknowledged, is the amount of emotional output required to teach, to believe in another human being for whom you ostensibly owe no emotional output (i.e. they are not your child or family member), and to sacrifice for them in a time in your life when your own immediate concerns are just as pressing.

Which is why I’ve been both comforted and simultaneously annoyed, if that’s possible, by this speech by David Foster Wallace. If you have time, watch it in full, it’s worth it.

Let me tell you why I’m annoyed: I agree with what he says, I agree with the basic, humane, no bullshit capital ‘T-truth’ of it. I also believe that this capital T-truth plays out differently for men and women. You see, when he says that the ‘really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day’, I agree with him. But, isn’t it funny how this form of petty little unsexy and daily sacrifice usually gets thrust onto women as an assumption and expectation?

I don’t think I deserve a gold star or a cookie for those petty little unsexy sacrifices. Indeed, I have chosen to be emotionally invested in my job, and I can stop, if I re-frame my mind. But I won’t re-frame my mind. This decision I have made makes my life more difficult, and means I weigh the ethics of what I do on a daily basis more carefully. It means that I exert more emotional output than perhaps others do who may not approach the job like me. I resent none of this; I have a brain, I have education, I have other privileges, and I have made an informed decision to view what I do from a particular ethical position. This is who I am and the bargain I have made in life. But what I do resent is the assumption that all women, by default, are hard-wired to make this decision to deliver emotional output freely.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting this is David Foster Wallace’s position. Hell, I’m sure he would be horrified to see the kind of demi-god he has been turned into. The combined annoyance and comfort I feel when listening to his speech is however a general annoyance at the lack of recognition of emotional output as genuine work that is a decision just like any other; a decision to invest time, energy, and productivity that is grounded in a thinking mind, not a biological imperative. This is the way the world turns...