– Dehumanized

spiderYesterday I graded papers at my dining room table all day, and then last night too. I had to push myself: it’s a special challenge to stay motivated and energized lately about teaching tasks that are difficult even in normal times. (And these are not. As one of my MIT colleagues wrote to me recently in an e-mail about layoffs, “Stupid economy.”)

Same thing this morning — pushed self up and out of bed at 6am to make a worksheet for a peer review exercise. Left house at 7:30am to give Eli a ride to his early class and then head to campus myself.

On the way, I listened to the radio station already on: WBUR, the local NPR affiliate. News, news, news. As I pulled into the parking lot, this story by Carey Goldberg came on. In her own voice, she describes getting laid off from the Boston Globe, where she was a part-time science writer, and she reflects on how paradoxically painful it was to hear her boss and colleagues say, “It wasn’t you.” We like you. Goldberg’s friend, a psychiatrist who also had experienced a layoff, took a long time to figure out why words of support and affection “felt so bad.” The reason? It’s “dehumanizing.” Goldberg agrees:

When people who know you and your work say your qualities and qualifications don’t matter in a major decision like a layoff, all that you are is somehow negated. You’re a number.

Of course, the alternative is no fun either. That somehow, maybe, it was me. This is what runs through my head lately at 3 o’clock in the morning: I must have been doing something wrong all this time, and nobody told me. How could I have become so expendable?

So this morning I sat in the car and listened to this short essay. It made me feel better; in fact, Goldberg lifted my spirits. Why? It’s validating when someone who has experienced what I am experiencing has felt and reacted and reflected the same way — I’m not alone, I’m not spinning unproductively around my own idiosyncratic and irrational thoughts. This is how people feel, and the feelings make sense. And, oh, those 3 o’clock in the morning thoughts: I have definitely put in some time thinking this: What have I failed to do or learn or notice, that everyone else seems to know or do?

By this story, I felt… comforted, and acknowledged. Even though the account is Carey Goldberg’s, it reached me. And I felt no longer perplexed as to why the positive regard I’ve been getting at work has felt almost like blows or tricks. This is how people feel in circumstances like these.

At 8am I turned off the radio, got my bags out of the back seat, locked the car, and walked to my building. I printed out 14 copies of the peer review worksheet; I organized my thoughts for class and made notes.

By 9am I was ready. In the classroom, students shuffled in, according to their own speeds and schedules. We made small talk until all had arrived, and then together we began. Did it work? Indeed, it did.


Photo of Louise Bourgeois’s Maman (1999) by Grace Guterman, August 2008.

3 thoughts on “– Dehumanized

  1. Pingback: Posts about layoff as of April 22, 2009 | Shirasmane

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