I took a writing class a few months ago and the instructor asked us to explain why we were in the course. I told her that I’d had an awful experience writing my dissertation—I took forever to finish it, I nearly lost a job a I loved, my dissertation advisor was unsupportive, I struggled under the weight of that experience, and always associated it with failure. Almost as soon as I sent my tale of woe off, for the first time in the many years since I finished my dissertation, I asked myself this question, “Good God, when do I get to quit telling that story?”
Lately I’ve been reading about longstanding grievances. It’s the wrong someone did to us years ago that our ego hauls out to remind us that we’re special. Although I would prefer to recite the longstanding grievances held by every member of my family, most of my friends, and a wide assortment of strangers I’ve encountered over the years, I realize that won’t actually help me in my pursuit of self acceptance.
The writing class helped loosen the grip of the dissertation story but last August when I wanted to start this blog, I found I was still banging my head against the wall of fear I built around writing. Then I had the good fortune to have a conversation with a new and deeply honest friend. When I told her the dissertation story the emphasis was on my advisor. I told her she’d once written me a letter saying, more or less, “Hey it’s okay. You don’t have to get a Ph.D.” At the time, I had a job that required a Ph.D. so her letter could just as well have said, “Hey, it’s okay to be a failure and to get fired.” My wise friend asked me how my advisor had treated me in the years leading up to the dissertation. I said she’d always had a high opinion of me and thought I produced very good work. I told her we had been close so the letter felt like a betrayal. Ever so gently she asked if it was possible that the letter had been written with good intentions, that my advisor was simply saying what she believed to be true. There was a very long pause. I was stunned to realize that it had never occurred to me that she had any motive other than to hurt me. Once I could see that there was another perfectly reasonable interpretation of my advisor’s motives the story’s hold on me was released.
When I let go of this longstanding grievance, I saw that my attachment to it had eclipsed a story that is more important, one that is alive and present. After I received the letter from my advisor, I told a colleague about it. We hadn’t known each other long but she immediately said, “It’s important to me that you stay here so I’m going to help you finish.” And she did. We met every week for more than a year. She read and reread every word of my dissertation and because of her generosity and commitment I finished. A lifelong friendship, that’s the story.