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January 28, 2007

It's no surprise to me, I am my own worst enemy

While looking through boxes of Yale-era crap, I came across a letter written to me by a beloved professor and friend, in response to some angst-filled missive of mine. It's fourteen years old, but parts of it could have been directed at me yesterday -- it's full of good advice about how to manage my anxiety and despair about grad school and life in general. I'm keyboarding it in here because I want to share the insights with anyone reading; because I want to remind myself that these have been longstanding problems; because I want to remember that Bob cared about me enough to give me such wonderful advice; and because now, as I am about to go back to graduate school, I need to take this advice to heart.

At 21, I just wasn't able to do what he suggested, and in fact I burned out and left grad school after a couple of years. (My marriage ended, too, but that's another story!) At 35, though, I think I can do all this. I'm already meditating, and I know that his time-management advice will work if I let it.

So, herewith, a perfectly brilliant letter:

Jan 9, 1993

Dear Rose,

Your letter arrived just before I began my holiday peregrinations and I have had time to turn to it only since I returned two days ago. I am sorry to hear of your miseries, particularly your yeast-illnesses. It is particularly unfortunate that you should be so afflicted in the first half-year of your marriage, especially as your husband will be gone in the second half-year. Your anxieties about graduate school are perfectly normal; your illnesses are not, except for you. I have two practical recommendations that will help you, and I urge you to adopt them.

You must understand that you are a high-anxiety person. Most good students are. You hide it effectively from others and, perhaps, from yourself. But anxiety -- I am sick and tired of all the bleating that goes on about "stress," but "stress" would do -- lowers your resistance to disease. That's why you get sick so much, even when you are watching your diet. True, you are more vulnerable to illness than most people. But one reason you are more vulnerable is because you are of a nervous disposition. You are stuck with your physiology. You can do something to counteract your anxieties.

I recommend two things: meditation twice per day and scheduling all your class and study hours in advance, by the week.

First, meditation: there is no better way to let go of nervous thinking, even (especially) the nervousness of which you may not be aware. If you are Christian, look into "centering prayer." There are good books on it by Thomas Keating and by Basil Pennington. Otherwise, try books by Lawrence LeShan -- he's a meditation-for-mental-health type -- or Philip Kapleau's Three Pillars of Zen, which has meditation instruction for beginners in one of its later chapters. Simple techniques are best. Simplicity is difficult, but best. Twice a day, morning and evening. "Doing something you enjoy," like listening to music, is no substitute. Meditation is hard at first, because the mind won't shut up. But in the long run, it is much better.

Second, set up a schedule of class and study hours per week. Under-schedule your time, rather than over-schedule it. When you've done your time for the day, then you can quit. You can do more, if you want, but you need not.

This will accomplish two things, if you have the mental discipline to stick with it. First, it will help you banish anxiety. When you work, you work as well and intelligently as you can, and you save your best hours of the day for work. Once you've punched out your time clock, you are free. Refuse to succumb to anxiety about "I should do more." The work is infinite, but your time and energy are finite. If you give yourself ample free time to do other things you enjoy, your mind will stay fresh over the long haul of the term. Second, working-when-worn-out functions under the law of diminishing returns in two senses. You accomplish less per time and effort on that day, and it wears you out so that you accomplish less per time and effort on days to come.

Yes, grad students have to push themselves, but not into illness and despair, like you do. Push yourself into new works, new authors, new kinds of thinking. Or think of it this way: what you learn in that extra hour per day that soon wears you down and out would, if allowed to accumulate over the semesters, amount to only one more semester of course work. In truth, you will work more effectively over the medium and long runs by not overworking in the short-run.

If you can stand it, you should take one day off per week. Schedule 25 hours of study time maximum over 6 days, plus your class time, and give yourself the rest of the time to take care of yourself (in all senses of the term). By the way, schedule meditation daily, too. Once you've put in your four hours per day, or once you've finished a 2-hour slot, STOP. Treat graduate school like a job. You like it more and do better at it if you take these steps to reduce and control anxiety and keep your mind and heart fresh for the work. 25 hours of intellectual work per week, by the way, is A LOT OF HARD WORK. Save time to piddle. Piddling can be very productive.

I trust that this will find you more rested than when you wrote. Good luck in the coming semester.



Posted by Rose at January 28, 2007 07:04 PM


Wow, fantastic advice. Hard to follow, but right on the mark. Thanks for sharing.

Posted by: Cindy at January 28, 2007 11:12 PM

Rose, thank you so much for posting Bob's letter. It would work for most any life situation, I think. I've saved it and will be pasting it in the front of my journal to review and remind myself every day, every week. How synchronous is the universe, eh? I've been having pretty bad anxiety lately over finances and life circumstances and Bob's letter and your wonderful commentary have brought me right back down to earth. thanks, chica!

p.s. What will you be studying in grad school and where will you be studying?

Posted by: caroline at January 29, 2007 12:34 PM

Does piddling mean peeing? Because I have had some of my most innovative revelations while expelling urine. Take that to mean whatever you please.

You are ready. You will do very well.

Posted by: Dianna at January 29, 2007 02:37 PM

Is that the LSU/Dante Bob?

Posted by: Matt Goodman at January 29, 2007 09:05 PM

Yes, it is the LSU/Dante Bob.

I think piddling can certainly include peeing, but encompasses a broad range of not-obviously-productive activity.

Posted by: Rose at January 29, 2007 10:37 PM

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