S.A.D. and Sadness

While on sabbatical, Denver Brunsman reflects on deadlines and sabbaticals, and self-diagnoses a new academic condition.

February 1, 2008

Everything was riding on this year. Last September, I found myself, at age 32, a great success who had not accomplished very much. I was entering the fourth year of a tenure-track job in the history department of Wayne State University in Detroit with a one-year National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship at the Newberry Library, in Chicago. Wayne State had hired me after seeing only two chapters of my Ph.D. dissertation on British naval impressment (forced service) in the 18th-century Atlantic world. Soon after a leading university press awarded me a generous book contract. Now, as a fellow at the Newberry Library, I would finally have the time to make good on the promise that had so long defined me.

I could not have mapped a better strategy in my first three years of being a professor for not writing my book. My wife and I became smitten parents of two beautiful children. I also volunteered to join the Army Reserves out of an idealistic, democratic, and perhaps naive sense that if our nation was mired in war, all members of society, not just the young and poor, bore some obligation to sacrifice.

And teaching. A friend of mine once likened teaching to gas because it filled every open space of one’s life. Sure enough, teaching consumed every part of me not already claimed by parenting and national service. When Wayne State rewarded my efforts with a prestigious university teaching prize last year, I felt like a proud failure: My enormous framed certificate sat on my office desk, while my research materials lay heaped in a corner, almost untouched since our move to Detroit.

Then the closest thing to an academic miracle happened: James Grossman, vice president for research and education at the Newberry Library, called to offer me a one-year fellowship to complete my book. Hallelujah! If there was ever evidence of benevolent academic gods looking down upon struggling young assistant professors, this was certainly it. The fellowship bought the goodwill of my department chair, who was relieved to hear I was going to Chicago and not Baghdad; my publisher, who agreed to extend my deadline; and my family, who signed up enthusiastically for a year in the Windy City.

After arriving at the Newberry, I became even more convinced that Grossman was a divine agent because the library proved to be an academic heaven. Peace, quiet, and resources galore. I made lists, schedules, calendars, and deadlines to take full advantage of my good fortune and guarantee that my book would be finished by the end of the year. I tried to maximize every waking second, even devising ways to work on the increasingly crowded and rickety El transit system. And, finally, I resisted temptation (mostly) by indulging in just one Ferris Bueller sick day of sightseeing and Cubs baseball.

By early October the Cubs had exited the playoffs and, despite all my elaborate plans, I did not have one word of my book written. The difference was that the Cubs always had next year; I had just this year and, after a month, it was already slipping away. In a fit of depression, I put my title of “doctor” to medical use for the first time by self-diagnosing my condition as Sabbatical Anxiety Disorder (S.A.D.).

I was not the only person around me suffering from S.A.D. Many of the other Newberry fellows lamented the turning of the season -- that for all its wonders, our fellowship could not stop the passage of time. But they all seemed to have good excuses for feeling anxious: a pesky cough that turned out to be a serious medical condition; California wildfires that came close to engulfing the homes of loved ones; and a mentally ill family member who was facing unexpected legal problems.

I had no such excuses, not even the all-time leading cause of S.A.D.: playing the job market. I had watched too many friends squander research fellowships to make the same mistake. No, the cause of my S.A.D.-ness was not connected to recreation, health concerns, family tragedy, job applications or even laziness but learning. I used the Newberry’s splendid collections to reimmerse myself in my research after a three-year hiatus. Of course, this was exactly the purpose for my fellowship. But the more I read, the more anxious I became that I was not yet writing.

It took profound loss and real sadness to tame S.A.D. In early November I received a call that my father, Frank Brunsman, had died in a hospital room in Seattle. He was in his third day of recovery from a successful surgery to remove two small cancerous growths in his colon. After getting out of bed for a morning walk, he collapsed suddenly from a heart attack. I already had a plane ticket to Seattle for the next day, when I had planned to help him transition back to his home.

My father and I were extremely close. We spoke at least once a week, exchanged letters frequently, and saw each other often; he visited Michigan four times in my first three years at Wayne State and even sat in on one of my classes. Those near him at the end said that he would tell anyone who would listen that I was coming soon to take him home. My upcoming visit had given him a reason to live even if his 72 year-old body refused to cooperate.

Instead of guilt, therefore, I felt genuine sadness over the fact that I would never again share my father’s unique company. He had grown up in rural North Dakota, and had quite literally written himself off the farm. Frank worked as reporter for 27 years at the Salt Lake Tribune before later retiring to Seattle. He covered trials, fairs, elections, disasters and wrote countless portraits of colorful figures who passed through Salt Lake City, the self-proclaimed “crossroads of the West.” Among the tributes that flowed in after his death, one from a former colleague described Frank as an “ink-stained wretch” -- the highest praise possible for a journalist fully committed to his or her craft.

A few days after learning of my father’s death, I received a second shock. One of my colleagues at the Newberry, Robert Southard, a historian from Earlham College, also died from a heart attack in his apartment in Chicago. Bob was teaching a seminar during the fall semester at the Newberry for the Associated Colleges of the Midwest (ACM). I had attended an ACM institution, St. Olaf College, and Bob and I had become fast friends. He was highly regarded for his work on European and Jewish history, but equally admired for his kindness and wit.

The two deaths have filled my thoughts ever since. The facile conclusions that one could reach are endless, that life is precious, make every day count, express your love, and so on. But I would like to think that academics are not so empty as to need a Mitch Albom moment, to spend a Tuesday with Morrie in order to realize what is most important in life. We know. After all, as teachers we are Morrie, those who have chosen to pursue lives of meaning over mere livelihoods. In my history classes, I stress the importance of “human ties” -- the root words of “humanities” -- to convey the connections all people and civilizations share with one another across space and time.

But, unfortunately, we do not always act on our knowledge of the deepest truths. This past fall I allowed my anxiety over finishing my book to interfere with the human ties that are most dear to me in the present. I had put off a visit with my father until late December (before later learning of his surgery) because an earlier trip did not fit into my sabbatical work calendar. My scheduling would have made it the longest period, 13 months, that we had ever gone without seeing each other.

I still made the trip to Seattle in December to commune with my father, only in a different way, by helping my sisters to clean out his home. There we discovered that he was probably more worried about his surgery than he let on. One of the last things he was reading was the section on Abraham Lincoln’s death in Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. The poems have given me a new link to my dad, for in the verse I can tap into the same timeless human tradition that he turned to in his last days.

Now I am back at the Newberry finishing my fellowship. Chicago has turned bitter cold, and the library feels different. A makeshift memorial to Bob Southard has come down from his office door, although his memory has certainly not faded. A new, modified form of S.A.D. has also crept back into my life and among the other fellows. We arrive earlier, stay later, and work harder as the tunnel at the end of our light gets closer and closer.

I am OK with this, however. My medical credentials might be dubious, but Sabbatical Anxiety Disorder is an actual phenomenon that may even predate the modern sabbatical. In 1804, upon reaching 32, Samuel Taylor Coleridge reflected upon his life and wrote, “O Sorrow and Shame.... I have done nothing!” So long as it is kept in check, and we are not too hard on ourselves, some anxiety is probably necessary for producing work of lasting significance.

As for my sadness, I am also at peace. Controlling S.A.D. has allowed me to forge new and deeper connections to people, including myself. I have replaced my policy of working on the El with a new commitment to using the time to read novels, listen to music, and think. Luckily, one of my first books for pleasure, Richard Ford’s The Lay of the Land, has astute advice for dealing with loss. The protagonist, Frank Bascombe, reflects upon his son’s passing by remarking that he has come to accept the death even if he will never get over it. We would all do well to follow this model. Deadlines will come and go. But we should never get over what really matters.


Denver Brunsman is an NEH fellow at the Newberry Library and an assistant professor of history at Wayne State University.


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