Padgett on graduate school guilt
A dear undergraduate friend of mine was just inexplicably rejected from a graduate program at MIT. He is brilliant, kind, creative, thoughtful—he has both deep technical skills, and a vision for how to apply them to brighten our world. He is by any measure as capable and deserving a scientist than I am—but he will not be joining me here at MIT next year.
I wrote earlier this month about how PhD admissions are often “unnatural selection,” influenced by factors far beyond the applicant’s control. Today, I am thinking about how it feels to be selected over others who may seem more deserving—the guilt and even shame that can sit beside the knowledge that your friends have been passed over for you. I’m turning to Ron Padgett’s poem “Survivor Guilt,” which I discovered taped to a professor’s door when I was an undergrad.
It is a curious poem. Without defining the term, it opens by teaching us that survivor guilt is “very easy to get,” because “just keep living and you’ll find yourself / getting more and more of it.” It lulls us in with the promise of sympathy: survivor guilt is natural, common, and unavoidable, says the poem! Being an undergrad comes with knowing friends who were rejected from college; being a grad student comes with knowing friends who were rejected from PhD programs. If you “keep living” in the academic world, you cannot help but accumulate more and more such instances.
We read on, hungry for more comforting words—but the poem does not yield so easily. “It’s a good idea to keep a small portion / for those nights when you’re feeling so good / you forget you’re human,” it tells us, as if to chastize us out of our hubris. Is the poem then saying that we should keep ourselves humble at each success (admission, award, paper acceptance, …), knowing that there is ultimately far more randomness involved than we are willing to admit to ourselves?
No, that’s not it either: as the guilt accumulates, so does the absurdity of tracing its consequences. “It’s all your fault, anyway, and it always has been,” you might find yourself thinking in bed, “John Phillip Sousa / invented the sousaphone, which is also your / fault.” And indeed—it seems irrational to be upset with yourself for doing your best and succeeding. In the language of the poem, is it your “fault” that the system is the way it is? Perhaps not, at least not until you are in a position to try and change that system.
Maybe we can distance ourselves from the guilt in the present—or at least channel it into something productive—by promising to someday make the most of the position we are in due to our successes. But even that, the poem offers, is not quite right. The poem cautions that this can be a path to vanity (“you don’t look too bad in the mirror”) and complacency. “Whoever it was who felt guilty last night, / to hell with him” writes Padgett, “That was then.”
And so the poem folds back on itself, finds itself at its own beginning. You succeed and forget you are human, you remember and take all the blame upon yourself, you realize that you are being silly, you give yourself more credit, you look in the mirror and you forget you are human. There is a cyclicality to how we orient around our successes—that, to me, is the heart of Padgett’s poem. We bounce around in this nonstationary pinball-world of shame, success, guilt, pride, failure, vanity, and confidence—inflating and deflating, inhaling and exhaling—like the breathing lungs and beating hearts we are.