Academic advice from cancer for the COVID-19 epidemic: let it go

Compared to the massive life and death issues people are facing, this is a tiny thing, for a tiny segment of the world. But with that caveat, it is still worth saying.

In 2009, I was diagnosed with a very aggressive version of papillary thyroid cancer. I had to bail on my courses, and lost the better part of an academic year (and more) to treatment for cancer. And if you have been following this blog, you know over the last year I have had to turn down all sorts of invitations and back out of some gigs I really, really wanted to do because of a new treatment regimen I’m on.

That’s what it’s like living with acute cancer, or chronic illness.

Now that many societies are essentially moving indoors and toward social distancing, events are being cancelled, courses are going online, and I see a lot of academics in my social media feeds worrying about the talks not given, the events not attended, the work that will be unfinished, the failure to deliver the same course online that they would in the classroom (or they worry that it’s a case of disaster capitalism on the part of university administrations, or they fume that universities are willing to do this but not offer basic accommodations to their crip students).

Maybe this is just deeper existential anxiety being worked out on the challenge to everyday life that we’re experiencing. But it may also be a conditioned response given how many academics go about their work lives (including me).

My advice: let it go for now.

This sounds like a privileged thing to say, and it is. But it’s also your only choice, even if you’re not enjoying the perks of tenure and stable employment. Even if it’s a big opportunity for you, like a job talk, you can’t control whether it’s cancelled or not. Let the work stuff go, little or big.

Letting it go is not a passive thing to do, it’s an active choice. For people who are driven, or perhaps anxious, it is incredibly hard to do. Certainly, it’s a self-preservation skill I have had to learn, and relearn, and am not particularly good at. As one reader pointed out to me, “you keep discovering you have limits.”

Maybe all that stuff your are worrying about will still be there when the current pandemic has mostly passed through. Maybe some of it won’t be. Focus on what you can do now for yourself and the people around you. Now is a good time to stick your head up above the chaos and busywork that, with each year, plays an ever-bigger role in defining academic life.

Let it go. You can choose to focus on what matters.

I hope to follow this up with a bit about how to support musicians, artists, and other gig-to-gig workers, but I’m still reading up on that.