The Bodhisattva’s Sorrow

I’d been intending to write a version of this post for several days, but it has a different tone because of a conversation I had over the weekend…

She was one of six students in her doctoral cohort, selected for one of the best programs in America from a pool of more than a hundred applicants. She’d been a star undergrad at an elite school, now a star grad student at an even more rarified research university.

Every single day of grad school was like training for the Olympics, new challenges set out by a team of the best minds of a generation, never a moment to rest or be complacent. Core courses, visiting seminars, comprehensive exams, she rose to every level she’d been presented. Her dissertation was not merely passed, but praised, and soon published.

When she was hired as a faculty member at a third-tier school, she was grateful for the job nonetheless, having seen her colleagues discarded over and over in the grinding wheel of the academic job market. She accepted her 4/4 teaching load, averaging 30 students per section, and set to work at a new skill.

She rose to that as well, receiving stellar reviews by students across her courses. Since the school was so teaching focused, and with her heavy course load, there was no expectation that she’d continue being a productive researcher, so her successful tenure review was based only on course performance and committee service.

And now… now she’s tenured. She’s 36 years old, no longer connected to her discipline in any meaningful way, a spectator of intellectual life rather than its leader as she once had been. Just as she had risen because of the company she’d once kept, she had now declined to meet the level of her current environment, a college that accepted eighty percent of its already diminished applicant pool (the GOOD high school students wouldn’t have bothered applying there in the first place, so they were taking eighty percent of the bottom half anyway). She would never again be as smart as she was when she was 29 and surrounded by constant challenge.

In the Buddhist tradition, there is a role known as the bodhisattva, those who defer their own enlightenment in order to bring support and compassion to others. This is the role of the faculty at the majority of colleges in America, scholars who had once been at the pinnacle of their fields, once the best students in the best grad programs now living among mortals, urging them to set aside their cell phones and do their homework. It’s noble work, but it’s different work than they’d originally undertaken. And every so often, they raise their eyes from the workbench and consider what could have been.

We should be grateful to them not merely for what they do, but for what they have forsaken in order to do it.