Professional Contingency and the Cosmic Perspective

This blog is approaching its tenth anniversary, and I realized that its tenth year has been one of silence. Partly I’ve been working (slowly) on another book, partly I’ve been chairing a really busy ACRL committee that produces lengthy documents, and partly I’ve less incentive to blog since one provocative librarian has ceased publishing laughable false dichotomies about libraries and another has ceased all public activity due, supposedly, to “threats and politics.” I feel at my best as a critic. But mostly I’ve turned my mental free energy to other things and have generally found a negative correlation between eudaimonia and social media engagement (the subject of another, perhaps ironic, blog post I haven’t finished).

Of all things I was awakened from my dogmatic slumbers by a Medium article encouraging library managers to embed creativity in their libraries. I say “of all things” because I’m all for creativity in the workplace, I’m not a library manager, and I have no particular objection to any advice in the article, with the small quibble that I’m not sure how one can have scheduled time together to “be creative” that has no agenda and can be used for “learning, play, investigation, fun,” but that also needs an “eventual outcome.” That sounds like a hidden agenda, but considering some of the librarian meetings I’ve attended over the years, a hidden agenda is probably better than no agenda at all.

That library manager reports that she’s spoken to “creatives newly employed in the library industry” who find a “dogged unwillingness to change” entrenched, and who “also speak about the meanness of our profession as long term staff members, often now middle managers, allow their own feelings of not being nurtured as a professional to affect their management practice of their team members.” That’s a pretty serious charge coming from these creatives, to which my response is, 1) I’m completely unsurprised, since even non-creatives like me have found professional lethargy an occasional hindrance; 2) I’m not a manager, middle or otherwise, so I’m not hindering anyone as far as I know; and 3) hey, wait, are you talking about people like me who have never been “nurtured as a professional”? You are, aren’t you. You’re talking how mean I am and psychologizing about my feelings. That’s not very nice.

Probably not many librarians would call me mean. I doubt any would call me nurturing, either, although I do strive to be collegial. I certainly don’t want to defend any mean librarians, because I’ve known a small number who have been downright malignant and it wouldn’t bother me at all if they died slowly and painfully as long as I didn’t have to listen to them complain about it. (A couple of those librarians might indeed call me “mean,” but that didn’t sound mean, did it? I’ve gone unnurtured so long it’s hard for me to tell.) I have even tried in the last several years to encourage some newer librarians (not nurture, but still) in ways I was never encouraged, even if it is entirely in my self-interest to do what little I can to keep smart, engaged people working here. And I believe library managers should be encouraging and nurturing and all that, but I know they often aren’t.

But there’s another, unnurtured, feral part of me, shrugging, humming, and slowly tilting my head from side to side saying, “hmmm, well, maybe there’s another perspective.” It could be that “long term staff members” are being mean; it definitely happens. They could also be bitter or envious as they see enthusiastic newer colleagues and reflect on how little they’ve accomplished in their life and career. However, there is a possible non-malignant explanation for the behavior of long term librarians that doesn’t entail them being mean because they were never nurtured as professionals. They might not be mean, just indifferent, and that indifference might have an understandable existential rationale, which might itself offer some small consolation.

A former colleague of mine once related some advice he received early in his library career. Someone told him that the library had been there long before he was hired, and would be there long after he was gone. The same is likely true for you and your library, and in a case of a library like mine, it was here long before I was born and will likely persist long after I’m dead. And, unless you accomplish something exceptional, your work in that library will leave little to no lasting, significant change. That isn’t meant as an insult. I believe the same thing about my work, and I have a high opinion of myself both personally and professionally.

Our professional lives are as contingent as our personal lives. We were all born through a series of arbitrary events, thrown into a world not of our making, and will die without, in all likelihood, having affected the lives of more than a relatively small group of people, all of whom will also eventually die. Our work is much the same, only shorter. Where we work and what we do is mostly a matter of chance and luck, good or bad, and once we’re gone we’ll be replaced, if we even are replaced, and the workplace will continue to function.

Despite this professional existential contingency, we sometimes think of ourselves as necessary. Sometimes that’s because we’ve identified ourselves with one of the roles we play, like the waiter in Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. Instead of performing the tasks of a librarian, people play at being librarians, and conflate their selves with their current arbitrary professional roles. You may have encountered librarians who believed that the library wouldn’t run without them, that not just their position, but their person, was necessary for everything else to continue functioning. They need to believe that their contingency is really a necessity, but I believe they’re living in bad faith.

Consider this when thinking about the seeming indifference or resistance of your colleagues, especially the “long term staff members.” One of the things “long term staff members” learn is the contingency of other employees, if not perhaps of themselves. When you’ve been at a library long enough, especially one that employs lots of people, you learn that individual people come and go and yet the library keeps functioning. Sometimes if they leave the library everyone is worse off for a while, maybe a long while, but everyone adjusts. People are resilient, and there’s a lot of ruin in an organization. Thus, it might not be that the librarians who have been around for a while are trying deliberately to frustrate you, it could just be that they know how contingent your professional existence is.

In the wrong frame of mind, this might make you feel bad. Some people apparently feel anxiety at the thought of their own contingency. Why doesn’t everyone recognize my brilliance and defer to me, you might ask yourself. That question is probably even more puzzling if you actually are brilliant and full of great ideas that would make the library a better place for everyone and not just you. Some of the best and brightest librarians I’ve known and respected have been the most frustrated at the “dogged unwillingness” of entrenched librarians to change. I’m not dismissing that. I’ve felt that frustration myself.

If you feel like your colleagues aren’t listening to you and aren’t changing fast enough to suit your tastes or aren’t nurturing you enough, you might find some consolation in reflecting on the contingency of your own life and how it might be viewed sub specie aeternitatis, from the standpoint of eternity. From a cosmic viewpoint–the “view from above” that Stoics recommend to put yourself into perspective–your life, your work, and your contributions ultimately don’t matter very much, but the same is true of your problems. Something that seems frustrating at work almost certainly isn’t important when viewed from the cosmic perspective. That’s also the perspective that almost everyone else has about you, because while it’s difficult to approach a cosmic perspective about our own importance, it’s relatively easy to gain one about other people, especially people who aren’t your close friends or loved ones.

Now it could be that you’re just a more compassionate person than I am. I’ll grant that’s entirely likely. I won’t fight for the moral high ground here. It could be that you REALLY care about ALL the people you work with, that you consider their well being as much as you do your own, that you’re incapable of viewing other people as anything but visceral extensions of your own emotional state and that you feel their pain as you feel your own. Other people look around the library and can find people they dislike and whose departure would be a cause for celebration. Maybe it’s their asshole boss, or that toxic colleague, or whomever. But not you.

If you’re like that, then you might be incapable of understanding the cosmic viewpoint and putting your problems into a larger perspective. Also, you might be incapable of functioning as a human being. But if you’re capable of feeling emotionally indifferent to the problems of even one of the people you work with, or to any of the 7.3 billion people estimated to be alive right now, then you might be capable of something resembling the cosmic viewpoint, and it might lessen the frustration you have with workplace problems that are relatively trivial.

Being frustrated by the slow pace of change or the indifference of long time staff members to your designs seems to me to be relatively trivial even from many non-cosmic perspectives. Institutional oppression and workplace bullying seem far worse than indifference or resistance. More serious issues emerge as you expand outwards to whatever you’re unhappy with about the state of the nation, human rights violations around the world, global trafficking in humans and weapons, the dangers we humans likely face from climate change, and the current scientific consensus that in about 4 billion years the earth will be too hot to sustain any life and in 7 billion or so it will be engulfed by the expanding sun–and that’s before we even leave the perspective of the earth.

Some might consider this point of view bleak, but I don’t share that interpretation. Worry, anxiety, obsession with others, the fear of embarrassment or failure–these can all thwart our attempts to change our circumstances for the better, and all of them are unimportant from any but our narrow personal perspective. If knowing that the earth will eventually be swallowed by the sun doesn’t hinder your will to act, why should knowing that some of your colleagues aren’t enthusiastic about your views or are indifferent to your contingency hinder that will? If you act to foment change, to improve your professional life or your library, what’s the worst that will happen? People who don’t care about you anyway will get irritated? You’ll fail? The worst that can happen, from the cosmic perspective, isn’t really that bad, so why not go ahead and try?

The people who do most to improve the world don’t worry about the indifference of others. They act to create the world they want to see. Embracing your own contingency and trying to adopt the cosmic perspective can be enervating or invigorating as you choose, and it can prepare you to do whatever you can to change things, and to feel less personal frustration over the things you can’t control.

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