The end of the semester can be a difficult time for many of us, as we scramble to help students accomplish their goals while trying to complete our own. Deadlines and the holiday season can add some urgency to our proceedings, and stress can be an unfortunate result. I was no exception, heading into December with an odd combination of dread and disengagement. A heavy programming schedule left me feeling drained before the week even began, and my energy reserves depleted steadily as the week wore on. This busy schedule happened to coincide with some wildly inconveniently timed, but necessary, soul-searching. By the weekend, I needed some serious recharge, regroup, and reconsider time.
The book that I picked up to carry me through the weekend was Augusten Burroughs’ This is How. The most recent release from the author of Dry, Running with Scissors, and Possible Side Effects, Burroughs has had a tough life. When I saw this new book, subtitled “Surviving What You Think You Can’t”, it seemed aptly titled and an interesting new spin on writing about his life story while helping his readers. But at the same time, when I first thumbed through the pages, I was a little taken aback, bristled, and uncomfortable. Burroughs pulls no punches with his prose, and the advice he was dispensing was, in truth, more than a little harsh. His brand of self-help is unconventional, pointed, and absolutely him.
It’s funny (pun not originally intended, but now realized), but my visceral reaction to This is How reminded me a little bit of how I felt when I first listened to the comedy of Anthony Jeselnik. For those unfamiliar with Jeselnik, he holds the dubious honor of being the only comedian edited out of the Roast of Charlie Sheen. That’s right, even after Sheen instructed the producers that there were no limits on what could be addressed at the roast, Jeselnik was deemed too offensive. For Charlie Sheen. Yup.
Jeselnik’s comedy is not for everyone. His short-lived show on Comedy Central wasn’t called “The Jeselnik Offensive” for no reason! Take a look, so you know what we’re working with here:
After listening to enough Anthony Jeselnik, it gets easier to listen to. Part of the discomfort that arises from his style is shock-based. It’s designed to be uncomfortable. But ultimately, appreciating his style requires the ability to lean into discomfort. It’s hard to hear at first, and sometimes you’re not sure how to react. But the only way to enjoy his jokes is to be okay with being a little uncomfortable.
As I continued my read of This is How, I realized that its understanding required a similar acceptance of discomfort. Burroughs says things that we all know, but are afraid to act on. Here’s one of the earliest examples in the book:
Affirmations are dishonest. They are a form of self-betrayal based on bogus, side-of-the-cereal-box psychology.
The truth is, it is not going to help to stand in front of the mirror, look into your own eyes, and lie to yourself. Especially when you are the one person you are supposed to believe you can count on.
Affirmations are the psychological equivalent of sprinkling baby powder on top of the turd your puppy has left on the carpet. This does not result in a cleaner carpet. It coats the underlying issue with futility.
Burroughs isn’t necessarily wrong. But it does fight our natural instinct to stay where we’re comfortable. Jeselnik’s comedy does the same thing. In order to enjoy life, sometimes we need to suspend our strangehold on the status quo and hear things that are different, dissonant, and a little harder to digest. That’s how we grow, change, and improve. This can be particularly hard to remember in student affairs, a field that often trades in making people feel comfortable. The hard thing to say and the right thing to say are sometimes one and the same, and sharing these thoughts is hard when we don’t want to “derail dreams” or “hurt feelings”. Yet, when I really think about the experience that came from my weekend with this book, the opposite was the case. I wasn’t demoralized, I was galvanized. I wasn’t discouraged, I was inspired. We should trust those around us to be resilient enough to learn from their discomfort, and actively work to cultivate such resilience in our day-to-day dealings with students and colleagues.
In a week where I truly needed the push out of a tough moment and into a more constructive state of mind, that dissonance saved me. Big changes and new movements are on the way, and I can’t honestly say such moves would be imminent without the time my nose spent in This is How. Dedicate some time to letting dissonance save you too. You’ll never know what’s on the other side if you don’t!