I had heard about it, of course. The all-consuming anxiety. The mounting fixation. The borderline, then full-fledged, obsession. The steady enervation of hope. Often associated with love. But for whatever reason, I hadn’t felt it quite so keenly before. Until, that is, it was one, then two weeks after I had expected to hear back from the Search Committee with a decision on The Job.
It was The Job, not exactly a dream job, but close enough. It was the right place, right time job, the Kairos job, the one I wanted more than any other, the one that would make me work hard, maybe harder than I’d ever worked before, but which would set everything else perfectly in motion. It would be the validating job. The life-affirming job. I really wanted it.
As the days passed, and then the weeks, and the program coordinator refused hour after hour to pick up her phone, I realized just how badly I wanted it. The universe seemed intent on reminding me as well. On the Friday I expected to hear something, anything, I got a junk call from a robot saying, “Congratulations…”—it was one of those throat-constricting moments—“ … you have won a free trip to the Bahamas.”
On Monday, three days after the day I was sure I was going to hear (which meant, of course, that now I had to hear), I got another call from an unknown number, with an area code that started with “7,” so even though my phone said Virginia, maybe it was Chicago, or a Virginian on the Search Committee in Chicago? It was a wrong number. But for thirty seconds it was like Kay Ryan says: “what isn’t in / the envelope / just before / it isn’t.”
That day, my husband came by the library, where I was trying, and failing, to work, to cheer me up. Let’s go to lunch, he said. We decided on the business school café, somewhat out of the way, where, of course, I spotted the Chair of the Search Committee, across the room, his back to me, having lunch with someone I didn’t know (but tried, furiously and foolishly, to locate on Google later).
After hemming and hawing, and debating various opening lines, with the anticipation and resentment of a thwarted lover, I installed myself in a chaise outside the dining hall, hoping to catch The Chair on his way out. First, I sat on a couch facing the stream of traffic exiting the café. Then, rethinking the position, and the aggressiveness of meeting his eyes (surely, it would look like I was waiting here for him), I moved to the opposite chair, so that I would see his back walking away from me, and could reasonably feign surprise at having met him here.
I waited for over two hours. He was clearly deep in conversation. When he emerged, walking and talking briskly with his lunch mate, I didn’t have time to steady my nerves. He was gone.
And with him, my answer.
On Tuesday, I called the program coordinator again. Twice. Had she entirely stopped answering her phone? Was it my number, popping up on the caller ID? I emailed her. Then I checked my email. Then I checked it again, and again. And again. I forced myself to read a novel, Manu Joseph’s Serious Men. When the last page was over, and thumb as I might, no other words came, I checked my email again. Then I got up so as to go for a walk and clear my head, and found my way back to the business school café, where I sat facing away from the stream of café entrants. I looked often over my right shoulder for the Search Committee Chair, who, I suspected, would not dine here two days in a row.
But I couldn’t be sure.
I looked over my shoulder.
I checked my email again.
I had lost the ability to work, because I wasn’t sure what I was working toward. I had lost the ability to concentrate, because I was checking my email all the time. My stomach was in permanent convulsion. My tinnitus, an ever-present buzzing in my left ear, intensified. I was racked with self-doubt. Even worse than the self-doubt was the unflagging, unstoppable, tireless and wrenchinghope.
What was this thing, this awful hope, that had taken over my life?
In Serious Men, scientists Jana Nambodri and Arvind Acharya exchange notes on the subject. “In science, hope is everything,” says Nambodri, a radio astronomer who wants to find signals from aliens in outer space.
“Hope is a lapse in concentration,” responds Acharya, who believes microscopic aliens are constantly falling to Earth.
I looked it up in the Oxford English Dictionary. Hope (n.): “desire combined with expectation.” To hope (v.): “to look (mentally) with expectation.” Looking was definitely my problem. Where previously I had prided myself on my hard-fought ability to be present, I now couldn’t stop looking into the Janus-faced future. At night, I collapsed in exhaustion. For the first few hours of fitful sleep, I dreamt that I got the job. Then, the night would turn, and for the remaining hours until morning, I’d dream of losing the job to below-average students from elementary school, who appeared here as nocturnal rivals, in the odd way that specters from the past sometimes do. I awoke spent.
Was no news good news or bad news? Was I deserving? Why was I so selfishly consumed? I read the affecting words of a valiant young neurosurgeon who had recently died of cancer. I was chastened. I read the news. My concerns seemed smaller, less justifiable, but no less consuming. I tried to soldier on with writing and research, but the temptation to refresh my email won out again.
What if I had to spend the rest of my life in this purgatory of lapsed concentration? And if, finally, I got the job, would I even want it?
Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a doctoral candidate in Rhetoric at UC Berkeley.