Loving Yourself Workshop: A Poem

by Susan M. Schultz

According to a JED Foundation Survey published October 22, 2020, eighty-two percent of college students deal with anxiety, sixty-eight percent with depression, and one in five (nineteen percent) of students have had suicidal thoughts in the past month. In bold print, the report asserts, “Mental health should be a top priority for schools.” I have spent the past seven years advocating at the University of Hawai`i-Mānoa for better campus mental-health services. If you read recent press releases from UHM, you would think these services had improved dramatically. But if you pay closer attention, you will hear the hollowness of the language of care. In fact, even as the rhetoric improves, the level of care diminishes.

Thus begins my essay, “The Language of Care in (My) Neo-liberal University,” which is based on a talk I gave at the recent Webinar Colloquium, “Poetics and the University in Crisis” (March 3-5, 2021). My argument—based on many years of activism at the University of Hawai`i-Mānoa (UHM)—was that the university, in its response to demands for better mental health care, gave only the semblance of actually caring. Communicating a public message of ‘care’ fulfills the university’s public relations priorities while downplaying its unwillingness to spend the money that would be needed to strengthen the Counseling and Student Development Center. It was one more sign, sad to say, of the university’s overall unwillingness to revive the notion of the university as a community of care.

More signs of this cosmetic approach include this pink, heart-laced flyer for an event sponsored by the campus Activities Council:

This garish flyer prompted me to write the following poem, which is composed of a string of haiku. The notion that all we have to do is to “love ourselves more” would be sweetly trite were it not also  so dangerously wrong-headed.

Note: there is some Pidgin (or Hawaiian Creole English) in the poem, which wanders away from the flyer, but touches on some of the issues it fails to address, among them climate change and clinical depression.

 

Loving Yourself

 

Learn to love yourself

And then how to love yourself

More: font a loud pink

 

Flyer promises

Self-love swag bag, coupon for

Coffee, karaok-

 

E bra, howzit den

Life been treating you good or

Not so good lidat

 

Time for self-love bra

Time for sing the song major

Key, you know, happy

 

Kine sounds make happy

People, pigeons in the grass

Alas, myna on

 

Concrete, be concrete

Mrs. Katz told me, and not

To read Paton’s book

 

Was it the unfixed

Cleft lip (reader, I read it)

Or race trauma, old

 

South Africa be-

fore Mandela gave way to

Neo-liberalism

 

Even the word has

Too many syllables   un-

true haiku lengthened

 

Like a supply chain

Link broken by accretion

She’s finished her book

 

On cows, there’s toxic

Nature for you, food for thought

Methane gets you through

 

The night nattering

Raucous thoughts, she said, kept her

Up but only in

 

The sense of being

Awake, not woke like young kids

These days, purified

 

Water levels drop

Atmospheric river e-

vents erase cities

 

Full caldera of

Water, if the world ends in

Fire we can watch from

 

There: anthurium

Lit from behind, haloed red

Pencil sticking out

 

Come back again to

Image, let the background fog

“Leave me out of this,”

 

My son says, climate

Change like this early morning’s

Bang—awake–sirens

 

Singing dogs follow

They love us and we love our-

selves, so deal with it.

 

What neither my essay nor this poem addresses is how, specifically, to ameliorate the twin crises of mental health and neoliberalism. My advocacy at UHM was all about communication: communicating about deaths in the community, communicating about resources. My university now does these things, at least to some extent. And yet the remedies seem more cosmetic than serious, more show than substance. What do we do about those forces that seem beyond the reach of psychotherapy, like economics, the snarled bureaucracies of mental health care and insurance, gaping disparities in access to treatment, the social causes of unresolved traumas (having to do with sex, addiction, violence toward self and other) that interfere with students’ ability to think and learn? When educational institutions are themselves under threat, how do we educate and care for our students? How do we come to love ourselves and others when all we get is swag, Amazon cards, and ways to find our DNA, as the Activities Council’s flyer promises? How do we replace the empty sentimentality of “love yourself more” with actual compassion, empathy, and caring?

The answers are as localized as the problems are huge. I remember once telling a student, without thinking, that she could come to my office any time if she needed a place to cry. She never came back, but I came to realize the importance of that offer—an offer of time and space in which to express her suffering. I remember expressing my anger about the long waiting-time (sometimes a month or more) for appointments at the Counseling and Student Development Center. I remember talking to colleagues who organized discussions of their students’ traumas, open-ended discussions that left room for silence, without judgment. I remember breaking into a big smile when I saw a former student who’d tried to kill himself walk by holding hands with a young woman.

My own response has been along the lines of the course on socially engaged Buddhist practice I’m now taking from Upaya Zen Center. It hardly fits the needs or practices of large institutions like universities. But we need to learn to teach values and practices of caring. I did this as a full professor who had some time outside my classroom. But what can adjuncts, who teach a crushing number of courses (indeed, most courses at most universities) without benefits or job security, do along these lines? That’s a question that very few colleges and universities are directly and effectively addressing—and the only way it can be addressed is through a radical reallocation of financial resources. Indeed, tenured faculty and administrators need to advocate vigorously for such reallocations—to start over, if need be, to make our institutions prioritize the mental well-being of all students and employees.

But we can’t stop at agitating for re-allocation of resources, whether or not they ever happen. Neo-liberal institutions do not self-correct, in my experience, but double down on self-defense and public relations. We need to work at the micro-level, as well—in classrooms, offices, hallways—to make sure our students know that they matter to us (and not just as cogs in the corporate-university machine). In my advocacy work, I had wanted to change the institution; what I found was that faculty and students began to change themselves. Discussions sprang up, colleagues shared stories and strategies for easing trauma in their classrooms. I risk cliché when I write that we need to care more, take more time, engage with our students as full human subjects and not as mere pedagogical objects. But I mean it, and I would be happy to engage in conversations with readers of this blog. Let’s pool our resources.

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