After having just had to cancel out on one more responsibility in a long list of things not accomplished this week, I am stuck contemplating limitations. This has been a frequent theme in the last couple of months for me. A serious-not-too-serious freak (and likely somewhat comical) workplace accident at the end of November left me with a concussion (let’s just say I’ve unfriended high heels and walls). And so began my conversation with limitations. As colleagues covered my exams and pardoned my absences from meetings and told me to ‘take it easy,’ I stewed in countless decisions each day regarding what I could and couldn’t do, or more exactly, what I should and shouldn’t do. Having to decide upon one’s capabilities and limitations is exhausting and frequently guilt-inducing, particularly when the boundary between well and unwell, able and unable can be so fluid and fickle.
I’ve had an especially hard time figuring out that what one can do isn’t necessarily the same as what one should do, so I’ve had numerous set-backs along the way, which brings me to this week and my renewed interest in limitations and why they’re so tricky to figure out. What is the deciding factor between cancelling a class, a meeting, etcetera and not doing so? What is the pivot point between pushing through and surrendering?
A bit of background: I grew up as a figure skater; I am still a figure skater, although one whose skills are in sharp decline. In so many ways, it can be a silly sport, a shallow sport where beauty and sparkling sequins matter, an elitist sport where snobbery can run rampant. But despite all this, figure skating has, more often than not, provided me with my life’s lessons, even my philosophies of life. It is a sport where one’s balance is always precarious; lean too far one way or another, you lose an edge or find a toe pick. It is also a sport where you fling yourself into the air, rotate however many times, and have to trust that you can control each fine movement of your body well enough so that you land upright, balanced on an eighth of an inch blade.
And although clichéd to say, it is perhaps the sport of falling down and getting back up again, both literally and metaphorically. If you get through a session without snow on your butt, that likely means you didn’t work hard enough, didn’t take enough risks. If you get through a season without having faced and surmounted harsh criticism, then you’ve been luckier than pretty much everyone.
Given these lessons in the fine art of falling, when all of my fellow grad students were having their egos and hearts prodded and sliced by any little bit of critical feedback, I was already mostly immune to such wounds. When nerves abounded as we were prepping for conference presentations, dissertation defences, and eventually job talks, I felt little effect. I always figured that if I could skate a program, fall down more than I stood up, while everyone watched . . . . all while wearing spandex, I could take pretty much anything.
However, what I’ve recently realized is that taking my life’s lessons from my experience in sport has one huge fallibility. In figure skating, as I imagine in most high-performance athletic endeavours, we don’t comprehend limitations. We persevere. We work through the pain. Stress fracture in your foot? Tape it up and get on with it. That toughness is vaunted and validated.
In academia, toughness isn’t just valued; it’s most often a necessity. We’re in a situation where we are subject to constant evaluation, by our students, by our peers, by our supervisors and administrators. And the stakes are so much higher in the work world than they are in an arena. Our livelihoods depend keenly on our ability to endure, to push through to the end of a dissertation, to push towards employment, to, in general, propel ourselves towards our goals. For those increasingly few who find themselves with tenure track appointments, the responsibility and weight of that achievement brings even more so a desire to surpass limitations. Why should I assume the right to give myself a break when there are so many who do not have that right, so many who would love to have the opportunity that I do and who could do my job as well as, if not better than I do?
And that brings me back to the conundrum of knowing one’s limitations. What does one do when to set limits is to be limited in one’s possibilities, but to not set limits is to be unhealthy, whether or not one is dealing with injuries and/or illnesses? If one does not try to surpass perceived limitations, then how does one know what’s possible? Aren’t we as academics programmed to go beyond the possible? It is so difficult to recognize the tipping point between having done enough and having done too much. It is likewise so difficult to assert the agency to tame one’s over-ambitious self-delusions. Where do we draw our lines? And more importantly, how do we draw our lines given all the reasons not to or at least not to want to? I don’t have answers to these questions. All I know is that one of these days, I’d really like to stop catching my toe picks.
St. Jerome's University