By 1964, a couple of years longer than it should have taken, [the famed mathematician John] Conway finished his PhD thesis, which explored a modest byway of set theory. He then needed a job. This was a challenge. Not because there weren’t jobs to be had, nor because he wasn’t qualified. The insuperable obstacle was merely applying. As the end of his PhD funding approached, Conway did nothing. He remembers walking down the street and bumping into Ian Cassels, a canny Scot who for a time held the post of the Sadleirian professor of pure mathematics, and also the position of department head. Cassels asked him, “What have you done about a job?”
“Er, nothing,” replied Conway.
“There’s a position opening here, why don’t you apply?”
“How do I go about it?”
“You write me a letter.”
“What should I say?”
Cassels took pity. He offered to write the letter for Conway. He sat down at the side of the road on a stone wall in front of King’s College, rummaged through his briefcase, found a pen, pulled out a piece of paper, and began, “Dear Professor Cassels, I wish to apply for …” He handed it to Conway and instructed him to sign, and Cassels filed the letter away in his briefcase. Victory was his, Conway was sure. A while later he got the news in the mail: “I’m terribly sorry,” Cassels wrote. “You didn’t get the job.” But, he continued, “there is another position coming open next year, and unless you indicate your wishes to the contrary, I shall take your previous letter as a letter of application for that position.” Conway succeeded in obtaining this second position. He became an assistant lecturer.John Horton Conway: the world’s most charismatic mathematician
It’s September 2005 — my final year of secondary school.
I’m talking to my college counsellor.
I’m dithering about whether or not to apply to Oxford.
If I do, I’ll have to apply in October; if I don’t, I’ll have until January.
The supervisor listens to me go back and forth for a while, then says something like:
Well, think about it and then come to a decision either way.
It’s October 2005.
I’m talking to my college counsellor again.
I’m dithering about whether or not to apply to Oxford.
The supervisor listens to me go back and forth for a while.
I….might well be repeating myself verbatim.
Eventually, the counsellor loses patience and says something like:
Look, this is exactly where you were last time. What do you want me to do here? Applications are due in a few days now — you have to have decided this already.
I jump slightly, feel guilty, apologize… and don’t apply.
OK. What was happening here was very simple.
I was nervous, and just fishing for him to say “You’re a clever guy — go ahead and apply.”
Applying for things is a big decision; it shapes the course of the rest of your life.
Just choosing one direction out of effectively limitless choices is maddening… but then trying to grit your teeth through that anxiety and summon enough certainty (and then maintain it over hours and days) to sell yourself and compete with others to scrabble for limited places is downright delirium-inducing.
On top of all that, I feel a sense of shame at playing into the prestige game. Most of us think we’re great, so we try to go for social markers of greatness… and my self-consciousness about this sickens me just enough to cause me to stumble. But many good things in life are only accessible with prestige — so I slink back to try again… until my shame bubbles over, and I retreat once more.
And so, I just wanted him to encourage me, to help me leave this state of paralysis with a little push. In this particular case, just a few words would have been enough. But he held firm in his neutrality, and stuck to the letter of his role.
In the end, I felt even worse: not only had I failed myself with my indecisiveness — I had wasted his time as well.
This episode displays a pattern that repeats throughout my life: finding it difficult to ask for help.
This is true even for small, specific things — I am terrified of being a bother.
But it’s much more true for the big things. When I’m feeling totally lost, totally lacking in confidence… I generally just tunnel inwards.
Because this is my expectation for what would happen if I reach out.
I will expose a bit of the aimless dithering that has been occupying my mind, and they will point out that the real problem is the indecision, and I just have to come down on one side or the other.
Once they’ve told me that… there’s little left to do but avoid them. Because if I see them again and they hear I’m in exactly in the same place I was before, they’ll just get frustrated or disappointed with me.
I could give about a hundred other examples of times I’ve been in this position… but what’s the point?
It’s always the same.
I dither… I dither… and I don’t apply.
Or, sometimes, I do actually apply… but through such anxiety that I procrastinate doing so until the last second, can’t bear to look at it long enough to proofread, don’t give the people who write my references a heads up out of overwhelming guilt of taking up their time with this, and thus sabotage my chances of getting in.
And, well… it should come as no surprise when I say that, after all this time… my own blessed Ian Cassels has still not appeared.
No one has taken pity on me, suggested a convenient role, and then facilitated my entrance into it, sparing me the process of applying. Just as with romance, no external force has come to solve the problem.
And so I have largely waited, with ever-diminishing will to prepare myself for the day when my knight in shining armour does finally arrive.
And every time I look back on how much of my life has been lost to this particular negative spiral………well…let’s just say I try not to look back on how much of my life has been lost to this particular negative spiral.
…………and, see… here’s the blasted thing.
In my late twenties, I decided to just forget about it. At least for a year or two.
If all I’m doing is working myself up trying to get ahead… then… just stop.
Stop applying to things.
Get off the career treadmill; cease chasing status and acclaim and even economic security; stop working the moment you have enough money to survive… and do what you want with your time.
Walk around, interact with people, and try to understand the world without being forced down any narrow academic avenue. And…. heck, now that we’re at it… go ahead and try to attain enlightenment on the way.
Unironically set yourself the life’s goal of becoming a sage.
You know… actually, genuinely, straightforwardly do what we all romanticize so much. Ignore society’s pressure; be a Socratic philosopher figure; live the life of a gentler Diogenes.
There’s no point everyone just telling stories about such characters… if no one seriously does it.
So from 28 to 31, I went ahead and picked the path of not picking a path — of aimless wandering, sampling this, that, and the other thing — trying to get a sense of the breadth of various experiences and perspectives, and responding to the events and people I came across as I felt was appropriate.
Of course, it wasn’t wine and roses every day by any means… there was a good deal of anxiety about ‘dropping out’ and being left behind in some way, and an increasing sense that I had to discover something that would justify this time spent out when I inevitably ‘went back’. I tried my darndest not to look ahead, not to strategize, following my heart in all matters.
In the process, I opened up headspaces which were congruent with everything described in the world’s mystical traditions. Which was neat.
But it also means that now… the paralysis has, if anything, become further entrenched. The temptation to just forget it all and—
OK, well, look.
To procrastinate explaining this point, I opened up the Guardian football news and saw an interview with the actor William Shatner with an enticing quote in the headline.
He had been asked what he knows at 90 that he wished he knew at 20.
“Here’s an interesting answer!” he says perkily. “I’m glad I didn’t know because what you know at 90 is: take it easy, nothing matters in the end, what goes up must come down. If I’d known that at 20, I wouldn’t have done anything!”
………well, I know that point extremely intimately… and have collected a hundred and ten fancy, more spiritual-sounding ways to phrase it.
So I now have two things holding me back from the attempt to ‘be successful’ in any avenue.
The first is terror.
The second is bliss.
It has left me terminally confused. Not only can I not decide which direction to go… but, on some gut level, I don’t understand why I should have to decide at all. I’m ideologically opposed to it, in a vague sense, and I’ve essentailly trained myself to do the opposite for a few years now.
And so, my friends… you find me here.
…just… sitting…. in a chair… in a room…
……with the past behind me, the future ahead of me…
….feeling equally powerless in the face of both, with absolutely nothing firm to hold on to in the mist-like “present”.
At this exact moment, things are fine. I just gotta write a little blog post. No big deal.
These past few weeks, however… have been torrid.
I’ve been trying to brute force myself out of this perennial condition.
Unfortunately… I’m not in high school anymore.
I’m alone in my room in a pandemic.
And so, I now have to play both roles — exasperated careers counsellor and gormless student. Manager and employee. Adult and child. Top and bottom. Superego and empty self.
Playtime’s over, David. You’re 32. If you’re gonna ‘amount to anything’, you have decide now. You’ve done all the sampling it’s possible to do; no other options are magically going to appear before you… you have to commit to a course.
Are you gonna do a PhD and try to become a philosophy professor somewhere?
Are you gonna commit to being a writer, and finally do the self-promotion necessary to ‘make it’?
Choose a less competitive path and become a schoolteacher?
Qualify as a therapist?
Or are you gonna renounce for good? Get a house-boat, work part time, volunteer a lot, write a few poems — be a quirky uncle and beloved friend?
And are you gonna pick a religion already?! Judaism? Zen? Sufi Islam?
If you just commit to one, you can rise up the ranks and get paid by a community to be spiritual all day!
And the harder adult-me tries to force a decision, the more frantically child-me rebels.
It tries to run away, to avoid the question, to distract itself…
But I’ve spent the last few years tethering it to a post with meditation. The moment-to-moment mindfulness is strongly entrenched by now — it’s extremely difficult to reverse the habit and tune out to YouTube or something.
And as each day passes with more indecision, the pressure to decide becomes more frantic…
And the more you pressure it, the less well it can decide…
And the longer it takes to decide, the more the pressure mounts…
And it can’t run away…
…so it turns around in circles, getting inexorably crushed under the weight….
…until, before too long, it’s flattened into an existential crisis pancake.
PhD? No, that’d be inauthentic…. I don’t want to argue about these texts and ideas, I want to live and share and revel in them… and I really don’t want to join the academic rat race…. OK, look for writing fellowships then?…aggghhhh this is even worse…. Therapi–…omg how would I go about getting qualified?
Hmm, it appears my mind has been going in circles for a minute…. hm… I’ve just noticed my mind going in circles… and now I’ve just noticed myself noticing that…. wait, what the heck is happening?
What am I? What is my mind? Why does it do this? What is it doing now, when it is questioning itself like this? How do I make it stop? I’m insane. What is sanity? I feel this isn’t sanity. I was sane at some point. What was that? What have I lost? There’s… nothing specific. So there’s nothing that can be regained. So… I’ve always been insane?
I’m confused. What’s happening right now? What’s happening is that I’m writing something. Why? Why did I just write that? I have absolutely no control; things just happen, and I just witness myself unfold second by second… why did I just write that? Seriously — what the fuck am I doing? For that matter — why do I do anything? None of this makes sense. I’m so confused.
Of course, everything does make sense. You’re spinning out because of anxiety. Your mind is doing exactly what is neatly described in Buddhism and the Zhuangzi and psychotherapy. So should I become a therapist? Do a PhD in Eastern thought–oh gosh, now I’m just back there again. Seriously, how do I make this stop? I make this stop by deciding on something. Oh God, how do I do that?
OK, so it’s now five minutes that I’ve been doing this. I seriously have to stop. Should I go for a walk? Ok, say I go for a walk… then what? I’ll just be in the same position, but half an hour older. OK. I’ve just thought about going for a walk and then haven’t, and now a minute has passed… and here I am.
This is completely useless. If this is how you’re going to spend your life David, seriously — just go become a nurse or work in an old person’s home. OK, look for jobs in an old person’s home online. Aaahhhh omg this is complicated; I’ll have to rewrite my CV… wait, what am I doing? Why am I adding yet another option to the cycle? This wasn’t the plan. The plan was to….. wait what the fuck even is a plan? Who came up with it? Me, yesterday…. but what the heck is “me yesterday”? Where is that fool? Why doesn’t he come do it, if he thinks it’s such a good idea? And why did he decide on this particular plan? From what void did such evanescent impulse arise unbidden to inscribe a spectral map on mute, unmarked reality?
OK, here I am, writing writing… watching myself do this… watching my mind unravel… what is ravelling… ravioli… ……………..this is madness. You’ve read lots of things people have written in insane aslums. This is like that. If anyone were to see you right now, they’d lock you up. To be fair, you are locked up. Friggin’ Covid, man.
………..seriously, though. ….how have I ended up here?
…I’ve wasted the last half decade of my productive life. I’ve destroyed my mind in pursuit of a fairy tale. If only I’d just swallowed my pride, gritted my teeth, and powered through in some particular direction, I wouldn’t be in this position now… which is… where exactly? …….hell, probably — where I’m being punished for my arrogance and my deviancy.
…..and so on and so on and so forth it continues…
…….until the situation becomes so intolerabe that the only goal becomes escaping this loop.
But any attempt to escape becomes subsumed in the circuit itself…
And so……….. the only remaining option to get out of it….
The careers counsellor gets so frustrated it wants to strangle the indecisive student.
The student gets so hurt and confused that it wants to close its jaws over the throat of the evil careers counsellor who’s backing it into a corner.
Problem is… both selves share one body. To kill the one, the other has to die.
And, what’s even worse… I share that body too.
I suppose, good sirs and ladies… that I am what passes for “the Sane one” around these parts.
I’m like the dog’s eyes, watching as the snout chases the tail.
I’m utterly bemused at their antics, saddened that they can’t get along, ignorant of what fundamentally drives them, powerless to control them… ashamed that, despite all the intelligence and knowledge and physical health and social privilege I’ve been blessed with, I’m still so pathetically stuck like this……… and just generally disgusted with the whole thing, from top to bottom and round the sides.
I don’t care what we decide, or even if we decide.
I don’t mind if the rest of my life is just bewildered indecision.
I just want there to be a rest of a life.
I see what’s happening so clearly… I understand the absurdity of it so perfectly…. I know its undesirability so intimately… I remember a thousand exhortations to do literally anything but this so precisely…
………………..here we are.
So that’s that.
An early example of the Great Paralysis which has consumed so much of my life, followed by a live demonstration of the latest.
What am I doing about it, you ask?
Had an initial assessment with a therapist this morning over the phone.
I’ve already applied for all the schoolteacher stuff I can for now. If I don’t get accepted, I’ll apply again in October, or try something else. If I get accepted and don’t like it, I’ll try something else in a year or two.
I’ve partnered up with a friend to be work buddies while I finally (….fingers crossed) send my novel to agents this weekend.
I’ve got a meeting with another friend booked for next week, who will help me set priorities and get a little organized in terms of creative projects.
I’ll keep up whatever good habits have survived the last few weeks. At this point… that’s mostly just exercise. Ideally, I’ll start adding to that soon.
And most importantly of all: I’ve fashioned a little device which I hope will attract canny Scots who will sit on dry stone walls to write my applications for me.
……………OK fine I’ll just tell you: it’s a haggis on top of a sudoku).
As to how I feel right now… well, pretty fatalistic, frankly. This has happened so many times. When I’m in the thick of it, it appears to me as if it has been ongoing and uninterrupted my whole life. And it feels like I have so little control over whatever this… is.
So… yeah. Whatever has happened has happened. Whatever will happen will happen. Whatever is happening is happening is happening is happening hmm why don’t I go watch it happen through the window instead of through my fingers onto a laptop screen.
I’m so utterly sick of myself and this particular story you can’t even ima…. well, you probably can imagine.
Next time — finally — a high note: my encounter with the person who most inspired me.
If you’ve followed the story through this fucking bullshit, definitely tune in then.