25 October 2021 -- "Ahead" and "Behind" Are Bullshit!

I like to think that I am smart person, critically aware, reflective about my assumptions, biases, and motivations. Even so, a few months back I had what I can only call an epiphany about how badly I have been duped — and for how very long — at both school and work. Like many people, it seems, the bizarre circumstances of trying to do my job during a pandemic and quarantine forced me to take a hard look at how I was going about my daily life, and they shed some harsh light on forces that would rather remain unseen as well. 

As a result, I hereby call bullshit on the entire notion of being “ahead” or “behind” in school or at work or in our creative efforts. 

Over the 15 months of spiraling Zoom death we are just now starting to recover from, trying to teach my courses, advise my students, support my faculty, and run my programs grew exponentially more challenging, frustrating, alienating, and time-consuming. For instance, the endless flow of small administrative matters that take up a huge part of my day, things which I could normally clear up with a walk down the hall and a 90 second conversation with a colleague while standing in their office doorway, stretched out further and further in our disembodied, digital, asynchronous days until each became six and seven emails going back and forth over a 3 or 4 day period. Literally ad nauseam. I was struggling mightily, and failing badly, to keep up. I felt myself falling farther and farther behind — my stress levels increasing accordingly — on a daily basis. “God,” I thought, “I haven’t been this far behind since . . . .” 

And then it hit me: I have *always* been behind. I have been living and working in universities since 1980. I have been teaching in universities since 1986. And I have been directing programs in universities since 1994. And I have never, not ever, not even once, not even for a minute been ahead. I have only and always been behind. 

Indeed, as I mentioned here the other day, “being behind” goes all the way back to 3rd grade math for me. 

Now, not to toot my own horn, but I am a pretty capable person, all things considered, with a well-developed work ethic. In sobriety, at least, I have become a very responsible and trustworthy person (a useful vector for my perfectionist tendencies). And I have a Germanic sense of order and organization, which brings welcome and necessary clarity, direction, and solace to my harried days. Moreover, since I was very young, I have been exceedingly (borderline obsessively) punctual. The Corps of Cadets at Virginia Tech puts it this way, which I wholly agree with: “If you are early, you are on time. If you are on time, you are late. And if you are late, you’re dead.”  

In short, nobody busts it harder than I do, so if *I* ain’t ever been ahead, ain’t *nobody* ever been ahead. 

This whole “ahead” and “behind” thing is bogus and completely rigged against us. The moment we buy into it we’re screwed, because it makes us take on inhumane (indeed, inhuman) workloads and expectations about productivity in school or on the job as some kind of personal failing, as some kind of character flaw, a moral weakness, and thus a source of shame when we inevitably can’t keep up. We never question the impossible nature of the workload itself, and we can never ask for help without revealing our failure and secret shame. 

It’s not just school or work, of course. This toxic idea affects my creative work, too. I felt just awful about being behind on this blog, for instance, and for not writing songs more frequently than I did during lockdown, beating myself up for not being committed enough, serious enough, productive enough. 

But to be clear, it is *impossible* to ever get ahead. As Parkinson’s Law states, work expands to fill the available time (and space). In other words, no matter how caught up we might ever get, no matter how desperately we might claw our ways into the positive part of this equation, we can never truly get ahead because wherever we are, “ahead” will always remain ahead of us relative to where we are, wherever we are, and thus continue to elude us. Other tasks, new tasks, additional responsibilities, new initiatives, greater expectations will always emerge to fill whatever spaces we can clear up and clear out in work days. “Ahead” will thus always keep expanding and advancing away from us, will always remain beyond our grasp. We can never get ahead. We can only and ever be behind. 

So, again, I call bullshit on the entire notion of being “ahead” or “behind.” It does not serve us well. It does, however, serve educational, corporate, and governmental institutional interests very well, indeed. If we always feel like we are behind, and if we always feel like it is somehow our fault, we are much, much easier to push around. So long as we think being behind is our fault, a personal failing, we won’t complain, won’t ask for relief, won’t ask for help, won’t ask for raises, won’t ask for promotions, will always be afraid of our teachers and bosses, will never try to organize, will always be worried about losing our jobs, will always be walking on eggshells, and will thus always be exceedingly easy to manipulate and abuse. 

So what can we do with such an awareness? Get up. Suit up. Show up. Do our jobs. But remain *present*. Be kind to ourselves. Do what is directly in front of us to the best of our abilities, but give up the false ideas that we can ever “get ahead” and that is somehow our fault for “being behind.” 

Finally, consider yourself on notice. I promise that I am going to launch into this rant – energetically – each and every time I hear a colleague or a student lament about “being behind.” It’s cancerous, poisonous to our well-being, makes us pawns to institutional abuse, and I am done with it.