Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Lonely Regret

Since I departed from my disciplinary conference (really it is my speciality within the discipline conference), I have been musing a lot on regret. From my other posts, you may have gleaned that I didn't feel at home among these people (hence, why I titled one of the post's "Continental Alienation"). The sense that I didn't belong grew the longer I stayed. I had no obvious way to strike up a conversation with colleagues, because I no longer read, nor cared for what counts as the "cutting edge." Without an academic home--outside of one's teaching post and institution--it is easy to fear that your identity is disappearing.

We academics desperately need conferences where we can share ideas, get useful feedback, make plans for future work, and keep learning. We need a community that pushes us to improve our ideas. The last evening I was at SPEP, I started to panic that I had lost my community. I had made too many decisions that put me on the outs: I had taken a job at a liberal arts college, and hence could not keep up with the cutting edge work; I had broken ties with former friends over disputes; and, I had lost touch with people I once cared about deeply because of the first two points. I felt regret for my decisions because I was now alienated from a community.

I voiced this regret to *I,* who responded with a very helpful question: in what sense do you regret losing touch with these people from the past if at each moment you made the decision that was best for you? I found this question compelling. It is helpful for me to think of her point in a different context, let's say a failed or unrequited romance.

Many of us can reflect upon people who we cared for deeply, but couldn't sustain or forge a romantic relationship with. We cared so much for these people that we wanted to create a more lasting union, but the contingencies of life made this impossible. Each of the reasons why we couldn't sustain this relationship are good ones. And yet, even after reflecting on each of the reasons we turned away, we have regrets. Why?

What is it in me that longs for a past that I chose, wide-eyed, to turn away from? Why do I still long for the acknowledgement of the community that I was once part of and left?

Part of it seems to lie in the fear of losing a past. If you have wonderful memories of friends, energetic conversations, passionate commitment to ideas shared over glasses of wine or in seminars, it is hard to find yourself on the outside of that community. You look in from the outside and want someone to remember and rekindle even the past that has passed by. Without someone witnessing this past with you, you feel lonely.