The Warrior Phase

My best race at the national championships, during the 1980s, and in the 1984 Olympic trials, was the fifty kilometer marathon. At the time I was training six hundred hours a year. To use John’s words, these were indeed years of feeling “trained, toned, stoked, pumped, psyched.”

Watching the Olympics, for me, is coming back to a former self. I recall the focus and dedication—and the feelings of success and achievement when winning a race, setting a course record, or placing among the top finishers in a national field of competitors. Too, I remember the gradual recognition that I could not sustain the ever-narrowing focus that comes with success as a nationally competitive athlete. The closer I reached the elite ranks of an activity I loved, the more I found myself narrowing my focus in training, if not in life.

Reading Mike’s “Counting What Counts” has me thinking about the full engagement of the warrior phase. The image of a warrior on Liberty Bell (an elegant spire in the North Cascades I’ve had the good fortune to climb!) embodies the strength, flexibility, and centeredness that only develops through years of conscious activity. The metaphor that aligns the life of the body and the life of the mind is helpful for me, in particular, as someone who was climbing mountains and backcountry skiing when not sitting in a seminar room, or working in the Suzzallo library, at the University of Washington.

Staying alive through the Warrior Phase, at least for me, involved translating the practice of strength, flexibility, and centeredness in my activities out of doors to the personal, professional, and institutional self I was discovering in school. But of course translation can be difficult, especially in a university culture that limits the range of intellectual activities graduate students and faculty members are able to pursue. For too often we restrict, as Mike says, the full range and capacity of intellectual growth of our faculty. For those of us who love our work (Mike and I are kindred spirits, it seems), I would ask that we speak more authentically about what we do: the real work that we think should be valued. As full, tenured professors we have a special obligation to cultivate our suspicion of institutions at the same time that we throw ourselves into the ongoing and never-ending labor of making them more humane.  For those who find less satisfaction or opportunity in the intellectual culture of the academy, I would ask a similar authentic way of speaking about how strength, flexibility, and centeredness have helped them stay alive despite the challenges and inequities that are endemic to any domain of labor. As Mike attests, “we desperately need to nurture recognition that there are many different ways to think, write, teach, and serve, and that many varied forms of professional activity and achievement are meaningful, meritorious, and worthy of our respect and support. We need to encourage our academic institutions to do a better job of counting what counts, and when they are incapable of doing so we need to have the courage to do what counts even, and perhaps especially, when we know that it will not be counted.”

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At one time, I imagined working in a large graduate program at a large research university. And Mike’s posting reminds me of the satisfactions I experienced as a graduate student and during my years as a postdoctoral instructor at a research school. I am confident that had my work of reading, writing and teaching taken root in this kind of institution, I would have thrived on precisely those human connections and possibilities to pursue my love of research and writing, activities to which Mike so eloquently attests. However, the trajectory of intellectual work, as Mike suggests, can be “stiflingly, perhaps dangerously, circumscribed,” opening up a rift between the personal and professional dimensions of our lives. Mike’s litany of professional activities considered virtually meaningless within at least some research universities should give anyone pause: publishing in non-peer-reviewed venues; publishing edited collections; book review publishing or editing; editing special issues of journals; collaborative writing and editing; writing for general or popular audiences; scholarship that focuses on pedagogy; research that is out of one’s supposed area of expertise; mentoring junior faculty or students; service learning; contributing to professional development forums such as Staying Alive; and, most tellingly, community service of any kind whatsoever. How can we devalue these intellectual commitments? How might we cultivate strength, flexibility, and centeredness in institutions that have no intrinsic interest in these significant relational activities?

Tasks and Strengths of the Warrior

In the second stage of an academic career, which we call the Warrior Phase, the main task is to establish yourself in the world.  Training is over; combat and struggle begin.  In school, you relate mostly with people your own age.  But in the real world you must deal with people of every age, level of experience, or variety of character.  Doors open on situations of breathtaking complexity or slam shut without warning on simple, sincere expectations.  Challenges lurk and opportunities abound.

Erik Erikson calls this phase “Young Adulthood” and defines its tasks as intimacy and belonging vs. isolation, to which we bring the strengths of affiliation and love.  It is enacted in the realm of community, where one learns how to make a living, and in the realm of personal relationships where one finds a mate, establishes a home, and starts a family.   Erikson locates this phase between ages 18 and 35, but in academic life, with its extended adolescence, it more commonly occurs between 26 and 40  – or, in the standard model, between grad school and tenure.

Warrior Pose B. (Liberty Bell, North Cascades)

The image of a warrior suggests fighting and aggression, but we like to think of it more in terms of engagement.  This phase often feels like a wrestling match with life.  To prevail, you must bring to all the skills of a warrior, primarily strength, flexibility, and centeredness.

Yoga embodies these virtues in classic Warrior Poses,  where core strength holds the body in position as energy radiates down through the legs to ground you firmly in the earth, and outward through the arms to engage with the world.  In order to maintain a firm horizontal and vertical alignment, your core muscles have to engage resolutely and consistently.  Without centeredness, your arms flag or droop, your knees wobble, and you can fall out of the pose.   Without flexibility, you can’t enter or exit the pose, nor move from one pose to another, without hurting yourself.

For academic people, staying alive through the Warrior Phase means practicing strength, flexibility, and centeredness in all three dimensions of life: the personal, the professional, and the institutional.  Stay tuned.

Image: NC Mountain Guides