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Dealing with Death: An "Out of This World” Ethic of Care

This past month has been rough. I have lost a father, a mentor, and a staff member in my department in the span of three weeks. These three deaths were soul-crushing, inviting me to consider what it means to deal with sorrow and despair while managing an array of expectations and demands.

This blog piece asks a question that continues to gnaw at my mind and heart: How do we unplug in order to spend time processing sorrow amidst the chaos of deadlines, milestones, and obligations?

I am concerned.

As we see the ever-increasing demands of living, learning, and working at a university, we see the cumulative anxieties and stress. We also see the expectation that we are expected to do more and more while handling multiple priorities that yearn for our time and energy.

I’m referring to the overwhelming demand that continues to exact an isolating psychological, physical, and emotional toll that is unreasonable and unsustainable. It includes: a) juggling the triage of research, writing, and teaching as a graduate student; b) teaching larger classes, sitting on various university administrative committees, and navigating departmental politics and institutional norms as a faculty member; and c) it means ongoing e-mailing, report writing and meeting the expectations of supervisors and donors.

I’m referring to what I’ve observed as the trauma enlaced in the terror of our quotidian: the act of simultaneously suffering in silence and desensitizing ourselves to the real pains surrounding us as we dive into what can sometimes feel like uncaring societal practices and institutional cultures that forbid us from investing in full selfhood.

To be clear, directing our attention to how we work and interact with one another is not unproductive. Rather, it is a necessary requirement for expanding the possibilities of improving structures, practices, and relationships that allow us to do our best work. Importantly, it is the urgent declaration that we slow down and care for ourselves as a means to promote collective action and mobilize human resources necessary to resist the neoliberal and elitist logic that we learn and live to work and rise.

It is a call to work to live and thrive.

This call begs several important questions: What does it mean to mourn and care for each other publicly? To live out loud our fears of paralysis in order to deal with our deepest pains? To directly address the enduring legacies of corporatized universities that valorize productivity and efficacy as opposed to collaboration and careful follow-up? To reject the alienation rooted in the grim austerity of daily life so that we can embrace more imaginative forms of learning, working, and living?

The reality is we can choose to live in a world that allows us to seriously dream, imagine, and play, or one that diminishes our creativity from multiple directions. One that cultivates the human endeavors of our hearts with passions that feed our spirits or one that deters us from doing so. Hence why so many of us have “side projects” that we separate from our “main work” because we assume this work is not legible to our colleagues and bosses, who will often find no metric to measure its productivity and thus, we relegate these commitments to private spaces.

And if this is the world that gives humans value, I’d rather be an alien from Out of This World. The extraterrestrial landscape would be the space that births imaginative ways of living with and relating to people. I would relish in the spaces that allow me to joyfully expand the collective capacity of my communities. The spacecrafts would be accessible to other Out of This World species who want to create meaningful lives beyond the wages of capitalism and elitism. At their arrival, I would welcome them with confetti, food, and a time machine that reshape the parasitic forces that colonize our time.

And maybe, just maybe, this reimagination can show us how to engage in different ways of experiencing and valuing time and people while they are still alive.

Rest in peace

Dick Meisler, Noel Jolly, and Tammy Zill

If you encounter challenges or problems either academically or in your personal life during your time as a graduate student, there are many resources available at Rackham and the University of Michigan to assist you. See the Help & Support page on the Rackham website for a full list of available resources: http://www.rackham.umich.edu/current-students/help.