Interview: Questions from Bryn Robinson for Moi

Bryn’s a regular reader of this blog and for that reason alone I’d be happy to gush about her. But if you visit her blog, you’ll notice right away that she studies psychology, is about to get her PhD., writes very well on any number of interesting topics, and is a talented photographer. It’s very rare to meet a social scientist who is actually social, but Bryn doesn’t use her field to study people like objects, but make life better for all of us.

She very kindly asked me some questions via e-mail a while ago, and now that I have a moment, I think it’s time to answer them:

1. What makes you happy in your life right now?

My friends and family are doing great, there are a few people I wish I could do more for and I’m trying to do what I can for them when not praying like crazy. The most frustrating thing is being as powerless as I am; knowledge makes you aware of the utter crap many people go through, but knowledge is obtained at the expense of being able to do anything about it directly.

Nearly every day I talk a little bit to a certain someone, and she makes me very happy. Some days we talk a lot, and that means that much more to me.

2. What does mental health mean to you?

Oh boy. I think a lot about my family and how absurd they are – and believe me, the absurdities go beyond the usual “Dad cuts the hedges to the bone” or “they have ridiculous criteria for anyone and everyone.” And yet none of the really severe problems are diagnosable, I don’t think, and even if they were I’d be scared to get everyone help, because that would mean every time in my life I was less than rational I should have felt like I needed help.

– Heck, I probably need help right now. –

I guess what mental health means to me is being happy enough to treat others well and not feel like you’re sacrificing everything for them even if you are. Part of this is making sure all the chemicals work right, that everyone’s open and talking and stuff, but another part of it is working at being moral/virtuous, not just assuming you are. I guess you’ve got to feel like you have given and can give still more; ungratefulness, something that one can get justifiably angry about, has to be countered with “whatever” and left where it is.

3. What influences your mental health in a positive way? In a negative way?

Anytime I get a really good blog entry or dissertation work done, I feel good. Anytime I get something read really well and take decent notes, I feel good. Anytime I have serious thoughts and work through them, I feel great.

The only consistently negative drain on my mental health has been fighting for an internet audience. That hasn’t just brought out the worst in me at times, it’s also made me feel like I’m incapable of making a difference because this world sucks that much. I know it’s not my fault, yet I’m not allowed to say I’m right because that would be arrogant and turn off readers. Knowing better and wanting to persuade gently and provoke thought is a nasty catch-22.

4. Describe a typical day in your grad student life.

Reading, reading, reading. Honestly, I keep thinking I’m lazy, and certainly I’m pretty disorganized. But then I’ll take stock of how much I’ve read and worked through – I read at least poem a day, always (usually upwards of 3-5, fairly carefully), and in June alone, a month I felt I was less than fully productive, I worked through a Platonic dialogue (Euthydemus) relevant to the “generalship” passage from the dissertation; essays on Nietzsche and Heidegger, half of Plato’s Phaedo and half of a dense secondary source I got online (the secondary source alone has made me rethink a lot of positions I hold), and a ton of papers and bits of things needed to do the dissertation. And then remember, I’m only counting scholarly relevant things here. I’m not counting all the time spent looking through the paper at things “tangentially” relevant to my subject, like the election or Iraq or debates in Congress.

That doesn’t sound like a lot to many of you, who read hundreds – sometimes even thousands of pages – a week. I think I probably read too much: the trick is keeping it all straight, and not letting any of it get forgotten. And yet my job is really to be able to analyze and comment intelligently on issues, and be able to spell out what’s relevant. It’s a tension which is peculiarly academic – any other job, here’s point A and you’ve got to get to point B.

I spend a lot of time writing in order to force myself to do that, and so in addition to writing online here, I have my personal journal and the dissertation, of course, has a separate notebook.

My idea of fun is blog promotion or going to the bookstore. Tea is how I keep myself awake.

5. What do you think I do as a psychology grad student? (or, if you’ve been influenced by my posts – what did you think we did before reading my blog?)

I kinda knew you were probably conducting a study for the dissertation, but psychology is such an enormous field that I couldn’t be sure on what. I mean, you could be doing anything from ascertaining the effect of drugs on the brain to floating theories of consciousness or seeing how mice react to certain stimuli to god-knows-what else.

Was psychology a simpler field, you think, when it was like “here’s your dream, here’s what it means?” Political science was a lot more complicated when it was like “here’s a city, and here’s why it doesn’t exist.”

6. Your country is getting a bad rap on the global scene – try a little marketing and sell me on how the USA.

I like my country a lot – the only complaint I have with it is that I wish we could do more for others. There are plenty of people working for good in regimes we are tacitly allied with who are truer Americans than many here, and yet we indirectly aid those regimes in their oppression.

Some probably think I’m talking about Iraq and Afghanistan, but tons of good have been done there. When the War on Terror first began, al-Qaeda was all over Southeast Asia and very active in Africa. It’s on the run in both continents. And I think the treatment of women wherever American troops are probably has improved a hundredfold, even though there are horror stories coming from within the ranks of the armed services recently. But we’ll fix that; the nice thing is that there is accountability here.

I don’t know that there is accountability in the rest of the world, and that’s why when we aid tacitly inhuman regimes we’re creating problems for ourselves long term. Carter was the one who made sure Mugabe came to power in the first place. But accountability doesn’t have to be about such deep problems: Bruce Bawer makes it really clear that most European governments fund universities that specialize in documenting how much America sucks and how Europe is better. He also documents a media climate that enjoys caricaturing America. I could care less about what they say about us, but “beam in thine own eye” I think is more than just a calling out of hypocrisy. The rest of the globe has serious issues of its own to deal with, but would rather point fingers at the US.

Again, there’s one or two issues in particular I’d like to see fixed – there’s a person or two literally I wish I could grab from their native land and bring here and give them a citizenship they deserve mroe than me. But that doesn’t mean my country’s a bad place; it rather means I believe in this place, for better or worse.

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