Opinion | Guilty humanities

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Recently, shiny automated job board notifications, enticing me into thinking about my future career, have invaded my inbox. All these ravenous, drooling emails, forking out bits of eye-candy subject lines, begging me to bite. “Zora, someone’s interested in you!”; “We’ve found a match for you, Zora”; “Someone viewed your profile.” In response, I’d hit cmd+a+delete and feel empowered. Capitalism couldn’t catch me. I didn’t need a career skills workshop or a supply chain internship or a leadership development e-book. I had real books, long-dead authors’ paragraphs to ponder. I had The Humanities, something so ancient and invaluable that, in its presence, these career-recruiting bots would melt into toxic goop. My examined life didn’t matter to the emails, though. After all, I’d signed up at some point in the distant past in a fit of anxiety about the encroaching future, and in so doing I had implicitly given my consent to be bombarded with quotidian absurdities like:

“Hi Zora,

I see you’re focusing on Philosophy at Stanford University. Have you ever considered pursuing Commercial Real Estate as a career?”

I was stubborn and strong. I would get a degree in a much-parodied, supposedly meaningless field and likely bump around fellowships until I settled at a coastal university and made tenure. This was endlessly better than Commercial Real Estate, endlessly better than anything with Commercial in its name. By rejecting “the commercial” I would have somehow succeeded in an immeasurable way: I would have conquered the Western, consumerist human condition and come out victorious. What even is success? See, I was already on the way. I didn’t buy the cling-wrapped, centuries-old bullshit they were serving: I questioned it. Mixed metaphors aside, I firmly believed that I was right, that anyone else was wrong or brainwashed. I surrounded myself, as best I could, with those who agreed with me and awaited enlightenment.

Enlightenment came in an unfamiliar outfit, though — she looked a whole lot like guilt. She said to me: “Okay, fine, capitalism is bad and oppression is bad, too, but if you want to make any kind of impact on those ‘systems’ (here she used air-quotes) you’re always disparaging, then maybe, oh, maybe you should get off your derriere (she over-pronounced this word, as I often do with French, and that felt mean and personal) and do something about it.” What should I do? I asked her a little harshly because I was feeling hurt and defensive. She rolled her eyes: “Like I’m supposed to know? C’mon, you’ve done so much navel-gazing, surely you know which belly dance your stomach is best suited for (she, like me, gets lost in metaphors). The point is: you’re doing nothing meaningful — don’t interrupt — with your life. There’s endless suffering in the world and you’re doing nothing about it. There’s impending doom on the horizon and you’re, what, reading Proust? Do you really think the world has time or space for you and your half-baked treatise draft or (she pretend-gagged here, which was, I think, a little melodramatic) your poetry?” And then she (guilt) hit me. Not knowing how to hit back, I just took it and have since tasted only a strange, cloying flavor of existential depression that simultaneously paralyzes (oh, what’s the use) and agitates (I must find the use!).

This is the kind of depression that lingers on the palate. As I write this, it still hasn’t dissipated, although I did make some quasi-progress on clawing myself out. Sheepishly, I clicked on those job boards and searched for non-profit work. I met with career advisors and asked them vague questions about “finding a service-based summer opportunity.” They pointed me towards websites asking for volunteers and unpaid interns to help the cause. And I found “service-based summer opportunities” that I liked and that liked me. After hitting “submit,” I felt that distinct post-job-application concoction of excitement and accomplishment. I had found the (or at least a) use.

But guilt lingered. The dissonance was just too deafening. In class, we’d have spirited discussions on the nature of the self, of time, of womanhood. I’d feel like my mind was being sharpened every day in all the right places. It was invigorating and exhausting. Then, I’d close Zoom and open the New York Times app and remember that my sharp-ass mind in class was really just a smart-ass one in the world and we don’t have time for smart-asses when everything has somehow gone terribly wrong. Guilt would arrive and make fun of my shortcomings and give me a stick of sad gum to chew on until it got sadder and soggier. And then it’d be tomorrow, and I’d have class again.

Oh, but you’ve been writing in the past tense, which means you’ve found some kind of solution and are now relaying — ad nauseam, by the way — the process by which you came to it. I hope you’re thinking that (but in a better-constructed sentence) because I’m thinking it, too. I started off writing in the past tense and then just carried on that way because it was the easiest and because these things did happen to me in the past. I don’t have some kind of solution, which is why I’m writing about it.

I have concluded from this survey of my own mind that guilt is not my friend. She came when I was expecting enlightenment and hasn’t left since. And if I let her talk to me for long enough, she can convince me that I should never have been expecting enlightenment at all. “Who are you to think you’re going to get some new, sexy package of knowledge dropped juuust perfectly down from the ‘heavens’ (air-quotes) that it knocks you out cold and you wake up wise?” I’m not looking for that kind of enlightenment, I’d say, even though I knew that wasn’t her point. “That’s not my point,” she’d respond. “What the hell are you doing even awaiting enlightenment in the first place? Waiting is just semi-excusable laziness. There are plenty of problems to apply your — what did you call it again?  — (she’d chuckle ironically) sharp-ass mind to that actually need solving, like, need need.” And I couldn’t disagree. I can’t disagree, verb-tense-watchers, I can’t.

Just because she cooks up a mean argument, though, doesn’t mean that guilt is welcome every night. She’s helpful, especially when I’m feeling unmotivated. But when I’m on a roll with something and she sticks out a foot to trip me, I’ve begun to learn to look out and dodge it at the last moment. There is something selfish about studying what I’m studying, doing what I’m doing with my time. However, there’s something selfish about studying anything. Sure, you may go into it with college-application intentions: With my degree, I will be able to end all injustice, make free menstrual products rain from the skies and shutter every sweatshop. I did, too. Perhaps, you carry them in your backpack throughout your collegiate career, as I have. 

But somewhere along the way, they get lost (as things you thought you put into your backpack tend to) and you end up faced with the fact that you’re studying to learn because learning improves your mind and, thus, your life. I shouldn’t use second-person pronouns here; I don’t know you, after all. Maybe you’re an expert backpack-packer and your admirable, ambitious, selfless goals are right there where you put them. So, speaking for myself, my “some kind of solution” is that dedicating a good chunk of years to educating oneself is selfish no matter the major, but that everyone has a right and, crucially, should have access to it. Here we are back at injustice, where all roads lead.

In remote office hours with a wise TA, I raised many of these questions and she responded with similar ones and few answers, which gratified me because I realized that this meta-omphaloskepsis (look it up; I’m so sorry, but I had to) is at least shared. She did give me the following tidbit after I asked, wringing my hands, what was the point of this navel-gazing? “Well,” she said, smiling wryly, “it’s not our own navels we’re gazing at.” She gestured broadly at the nay-sayers, the career-obsessed, at guilt, too. “It’s theirs.”

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Zora Ilunga-Reed is a columnist and a junior studying Philosophy & Literature. A native New Yorker, she was a Copy Editor, Desk Editor and Staff Writer in volumes past. Read her column if you want to hear her thoughts on the woes of humanities students, tech culture and more.