by Esther Freinkel Tishman, PhD, BCC (she/her)
Esther Freinkel Tishman, Ph.D, BCC is an ordained Zen teacher, a full-time interfaith chaplain, a scholar of archetypes and religion, and a certified mindfulness instructor. She is also a former dean, department head and professor, having given up her tenure at the University of Oregon in 2018. Under the name “Lisa Freinkel” she received her AB from Harvard, her MA and Ph.D. from Berkeley. In 2020 her book Mindful Tarot (Llewellyn) was nominated by the International Tarot Foundation as best tarot book of the year. She is founder of Calyx Contemplative Care, a mindfulness-based coaching business. Dr. Tishman will be leading a mindfulness for academics webinar for TPII very soon.
An academic friend once told me: “I think I’m on strike, internal strike.” He’d stopped working as hard as he used to. This friend is the kind of person who wakes up at 3 a.m. to answer all his emails and put in a couple of hours of writing before he heads to campus. He was confiding in me that he felt something was wrong. “I just can’t anymore.” He attributed the malaise to burnout, depression, illness. He was, however, soldiering through. Doing as much as he could, crossing his own picket lines. Scabbing against his own union.
So much of what we call burnout is simpler than we think. Yes, we’re working too hard. Yes, the rules keep changing and the goalposts keep moving, and we’re exhausted by all our running to catch up. Yes, we might be ill. After all, our bodies have taken a beating for years. We’re stressed to the max – completely stressed out. And indeed, the classic definition of stress is the experience of a demand that exceeds our capacity to respond. The asks are too great. It’s all too much.
But this hamster wheel is not, itself, the problem. The problem is that we aren’t hamsters – and we know it. And yet, we stay on the wheel.
I’ve learned this truth most sharply in the past year and a half. I became a hospital chaplain in 2018. My job is to support patients and families of course – but also, and perhaps most pressingly during COVID, I’m there for the staff.
In the hospital we talk about compassion fatigue – and we talk about burnout. But the term that’s most relevant is a concept taken from the battlefield: moral distress.
Moral distress is that anguish that comes from dissonance – from a life lived in accordance with duty, but against our core values.
The hospital has taught me something about this dissonance. Doctors, nurses, aides: their job is to heal. But these days, the world feels willfully, capriciously incurable. Yellow isolation gown, N95 mask, face shield, gloves. Ground-glass infiltrates, multiple system failures. Ivermectin and anti-vaxers. The 48-year-old father of four who died despite two doses of Pfizer. Death after COVID death. “Another day in paradise,” say the nurses. (“Just living the dream,” is the proper rejoinder.)
These nurses are not freaking “heroes.” This isn’t the frontline – it’s the picket line. In times as crazy as this, you’d be crazy not to be on internal strike. And yet, the nurses and aides and doctors keep doing what they do. They’re professionals, making jokes, sharing pictures of their new puppies, tending helplessly to the already-dying, day after numbing day.
They can’t do their job; they must do their job. This is what moral distress looks like.
But you already know all about this, don’t you? You don’t have to be in the military or a COVID ICU to feel moral distress. Academia has its fair share of fatal dissonance, too. We can’t do our job; we must do our job. For me, the promise of university life has always been Socrates’s lesson from the oracle: Know yourself. The answers are all within. But how can any of that matter in the increasingly corporatized world of so-called higher ed, where we fight for eyeballs and tuition dollars, and worry about our “brand” and talk about “student success” instead of human flourishing, and where our students for their part are drowning in epidemic levels of depression and anxiety, food insecurity, systemic oppression, existential fears about the nation and the planet. The beautiful promise is compromised by a broken world.
For years as an academic, I thought I was burned out. I thought I was broken. This is what moral distress looks like.
Know your own damn self.
I started teaching mindfulness as a path toward self-knowing. We humans are poked and prodded by our lives all day long. That prodding feels external – something the world “out there” does to us “in here.” In the end, however, we’re facing our own inner world. “Out there” is ultimately in here. The world turns – and so do we. Pokes and prods from the outside world become our triggers. We are snagged, hooked and reeled. The world in its myriad flavors of crazy becomes the inner tangle of our hearts and minds.
Mindfulness lights up that world of inner tangle.
Left to our own devices, we try to ignore our inner tangles. Or we try to manicure their prickly discomfort. We find band-aid measures for our distress. We procrastinate. We drink and smoke too much. We change jobs, or programs, or partners, or advisors. We get tattoos. We start paddle boarding. We eat a lot of melted cheese. We watch a lot of YouTube.
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with our band-aids. They keep us patched and together.
But sooner or later, the prickly discomfort becomes too much of a thing. The students who end up in my mindfulness courses are there for a reason. “Something poked you,” I tell them. “Even if it was just an annoying family member telling you ‘to just breathe.’” Listen to the poke. Take note of the tangles and thickets. Tune in to those sticky and prickly places. They will guide you home.
To find our way, we need only trace out our picket lines, bearing witness to our discomfort. Inevitably, by way of bas relief, we will also make visible our joys and our inspirations.
That pathway home is not so difficult. In my webinars I outline it in three basic steps:
Trust your reach.
Trust your resistance.
We begin by coming back to our embodied senses: the world under our feet, our hands resting in our laps, our lunch digesting in our bellies.
From there, we remember those activities, thoughts, ideas that inspire us. When it’s not an alarm clock or a deadline, what gets me out of bed in the morning?
The final step is to make peace with the places where we rebel. Where is that inner sense of the picket line? My “NO!” knows something. Perhaps it’s time to trust my own resistance. At the very least, maybe I don’t have to fight my own fighting.
These are steps that we can understand.
More importantly: they are steps that we can practice.*
Trust the picket line, people.
*I’m about to offer something here at The Professor Is In to help you with this process. Watch this space!
- Visiting Campus during COVID as a Black Woman – #BLM Guest Post
- Adjuncting and Stockholm Syndrome
- Diversity in the Time of Covid: Thoughts From an Academic WOC in Confinement – BIPOC Scholar Guest Post
- There Is No Moral Relativity in Sexual Harassment – a Guest Post
- Don’t Go To Graduate School (An Inadvertent Guest Post)