Fear is a broken compass



Fear is a broken compass.

Fear is medication that does not work anymore.

Fear is convulsions at night.

Fear is not-knowing and to continue walking

I used to know the rules, the landscape, and what was expected of me as faculty, as researcher and as human. I used to know what skills were required, what social/professional capital I could use, and when, not only to survive but to flourish in higher education. I used to be certain of where and how I fitted, what I needed to do to endure, not only in academia and in my institutional context, but also in post-apartheid South Africa.

I used to know, but somehow I don’t anymore.

I always worked hard. I always opened my office door at least two hours before anyone else. I grabbed and was addicted to opportunities like a street kid looks for and sniffs glue. I staggered, intoxicated from one submission to the other. With each invitation to speak, to contribute, to co-author, to review, came a dose of adrenalin, a constant supply of rush.

I did not notice the fading of the light. I, somehow, did not notice the needle on my compass becoming disoriented. I mistook the fear of failing for adrenalin.

I continued to work harder than ever before. At any one stage of a week, I was writing and co-writing a number of articles, writing reports, ticking off boxes, and submitting grant applications. I was going somewhere. I knew.

My knowing was informed by having a compass, a sense of where North was, and having choices to walk North-East, or South-West. Increasingly, my compass just keeps turning. Either it became broken, or there is no magnetic North anymore.

Fear is a broken compass.

The not-knowing-anymore did not come suddenly, but resembled a gradual fading away of knowing, like the sun bleaching curtains, or a river drying up, or autumn arriving during the night and the leaves on trees suddenly turning yellow. The not-knowing-anymore resembled, at least for me, losing my eyesight, and finding myself in an unfamiliar world, feeling my way around, bumping into things, and getting used to the sound of things falling around me.

And as things faded, as I found myself shaking my compass to make it work, my anxiousness grew, and turned into fear.

Like someone becoming blind, I used to be able to find my way around, slower than before, but I could still find my way, my favorite cup, the peanut butter, and my increasingly growing stash of medication. I knew how to avoid the sharp edges of the cupboard in my room, to be careful with boiling water, and to remember where I put my keys.

When I woke up this morning, I realised that I have lost my sight, my bearings. Someone moved the door. I can’t find my favorite cup. I woke to find myself in a different world.

I lost my way.

Fear is a broken compass.

Or maybe someone stole North.

In her book, “Cruel optimism”, Lauren Berlant (2011) provides a lens, at least for me, into the disorientation flowing from “when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing” (p.1).  When your striving for a ‘good life’ frays and “fantasies of the good life becomes a landfill for overwhelming and impending crises of life-building and expectation whose sheer volume so threatens what it has meant to ‘have a life’ that adjustment seems like an accomplishment” (p. 3). My disorientation and depression seems to feed off my situation, like when police would report that they have a situation at hand. “A situation is a state of things in which something that will perhaps matter is unfolding amid the usual activity of life. It is a state of animated and animating suspension that forces itself on consciousness, that produces a sense of emergence of something in the present that may become an event” (Berlant, 2011, p. 5). Situations signify that “the rules for habitation and the genres of storytelling about it are unstable” (Berlant, 2011, p. 6), and that the situation heralds a knowing that “life are becoming undone” (p. 7).

And yet, despite the unraveling, and the smell of drowning,  I have to figure a way out of being attached to the very situation or life that is causing the drowning. Berlant (2011) states that, among other things/foci, she is “seeking out the conditions under which certain attachments to what counts as life come to make sense or no longer make sense, yet remain powerful as they work against the flourishing of particular and collective beings” (p. 13). My “stuckness”, my sense of treading water and seeking North therefore constitute “a problematic defense against the contingencies of the present” (p. 13). Even while my relation to life and staying alive is cruel, it is, at the same time, “a scene of negotiated sustenance, that makes life bearable as it presents itself ambivalently, unevenly, incoherently” (p. 14).


[Sandra de la Loza & Eduardo Molinari (2017) Source: https://www.pitzer.edu/manifesto/2018/02/26/sandra-de-la-loza-eduardo-molinari/]

So as I fumble around for meaning, as I protest my being born into this situation, this world, and I cling to the umbilical cord that binds me to this situation, to this world, to this mad rush for meaning, to this search for North.

Despite my broken compass, I walk, questioning. Like Sandra de la Loza and Eduardo Molinari, I am overwhelmed by the complexities of the world I live, work and breathe in. I am looking for ways to consciously inhabit my situation, to find a language to speak about, but also speak to my situation. I craft daily ‘to do’ lists and scribbles on serviettes in an attempt to archive my history, my situation.

In an act of archivist witchcraft I dance naked in this blog, to “unlock and reveal obscured narratives and hidden ghosts” in my life as scholar as archival material. The opening of the archive to my scholarly identity, despair and praxis, is an intentional ritual of scholarly witchcraft, of ‘cruel optimism’ as I shake my compass, and keep walking.

Fear is a broken compass.

Fear is medication that does not work anymore.

Fear is convulsions at night.

Fear is not-knowing and to continue walking

Image credit: https://pixabay.com/photos/sculpture-head-face-bronze-statue-1698293/

Berlant, L. (2011). Cruel optimism. Duke University Press

About opendistanceteachingandlearning

Research professor in Open Distance and E-Learning (ODeL) at the University of South Africa (Unisa). Interested in teaching and learning in networked and open distance and e-learning environments. I blog in my personal capacity and the views expressed in the blog does not reflect or represent the views of my employer, the University of South Africa (Unisa).
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5 Responses to Fear is a broken compass

  1. Ken Bauer says:

    Thanks you so much for this Paul. This is raw and an unselfish expression of what so many of us in education (and other fields I am sure) feel. This is poetic, thank you.

  2. sensor63 says:

    Maybe your body is your compass.
    Maybe give it time to settle.
    Maybe the North is not true.

    You are a trusted guide Paul.
    Thank you for spinning this twine.

    Navigating by stars.
    “There are those of you who are painted on my planetarium ceiling.”


    Go Forward With Courage

    When you are in doubt, be still, and wait;
    when doubt no longer exists for you, then go forward with courage.
    So long as mists envelop you, be still;
    be still until the sunlight pours through and dispels the mists
    — as it surely will.
    Then act with courage.

    Ponca Chief White Eagle (1800’s to 1914)

  3. Jo-Anne says:

    Dear Paul,
    I am so sorry that you are feeling this way. And outraged. How does something like this happen to a phenomenal person like you? How does one person’s career aspirations become more important than the dreams of thousands of students? We are living in a complete travesty of social justice when experienced and passionate academics cannot see the way forward from a dark maze created by others. I feel we have not only lost our compasses but also our guiding lilght. How utterly sad!

  4. Maha Bali says:

    Feeling so much as I read this, Paul, and I was also struck by the concept of cruel optimism on so many fronts. I’m feeling your pain. And your blog is also making me question a lot of my own decisions daily. It reminds me of this post from a few years ago but which I read last week about how in academia we keep burning ourselves from some elusive goal many of us will never reach, and its value is questionable. I don’t know all the details of your current situation, and I don’t know if North is out there somewhere for you to find it, or if there’s some other way to find peace. Or whatever would afford you a measure of happiness. But lots of hugs to you

  5. hentiewilson says:

    Paul, thank you for this raw, candid, black reflection. I have walked come through two years of losing my eyesight, of recognising a cancer diagnoses (second time) and its treatments, and loosing my energies, what is important or not important to me, of keeping walking walking and coming to a standstill in a pandemic. Fear is my life-long silent companion that I ignored but carried. Now I am tired too. I also stopped to seek the joy, the what matters, the breathing (wise words from the sage). Your poetic writing is far above me. Your honesty inspires me. This is life in all its facets, say I … in stillness and hope. The eye of the storm is the most powerful space.

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