An Empty Gesture

As has been announced, come July 1, 2024, my title will officially change from “dean” to “president.” I do not believe that I have fully internalized the gravity of this transition, but I suspect that that will change, gradually and then all of a sudden, over the next several months as I go through the process of “onboarding” — i.e., downloading all of my predecessor’s institutional knowledge and fitting it somehow into my consciousness, wedged in there someplace between knowing my wife’s and kid’s birthdates, random facts about both the Star Wars and Star Trek fictional universes, virtually the entirety of the movie The Princess Bride, and, oh yeah, all this stuff I know about Buddhism and Buddhist history.

A passage from Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness has been rattling around my head for many years now. The backstory here is that an envoy from a loose federation of planets has been sent to an alien world of non-binary peoples, and the envoy is working with the prime minister, Estraven, to navigate the complicated political landscape for an audience with the king. Of the prime minister, the narrator says:

“In Estraven, for instance, one feels the man’s power as an augmentation of his character; he cannot make an empty gesture or say a word that is not listened to. He knows it, and the knowledge gives him more reality than most people own: a solidness of being, a substantiality, a human grandeur.”

This sense that, owing to his position, he cannot but be listened to, and he is so aware of this fact that it has become a part of his character, caught me off guard the first time I read it because I had already begun to sense a change in how people interacted with me, having recently been given the position of dean. Certainly not at the level of “grandeur,” not at the level of one who has more power than the limited scope of power bestowed upon someone at a small graduate school; but I did notice when several members of the staff and students started referring to me exclusively as “Dr. Mitchell” and even, on occasion, “sir.”

This is to say that I am very aware of the fact that for the past eight years, whenever I spoke publicly, even if I tried to claim that I was only speaking for myself, there was always an implication that I was speaking for more than myself, that I was, even if indirectly, speaking on behalf of the Institute. Moving forward, my individual identity and my public persona will surely only become more and more conflated. So, as I joked a couple of months ago, I’d better behave myself.

Of course, that’s not too difficult. My life isn’t all that exciting to begin with, and my days of arguing with people on the internet are long gone. Which brings us to the first point of his post: my ongoing and future use of social media.

As I wrote not long after the cartoon supervillain who, for some reason, we keep letting control the world took over the Bird Site, I more or less stopped my habit of using social media. I did (because I just can’t seem to let go the “djbuddha” handle) set up accounts on Threads, BlueSky, and Mastodon. But if you check out those sites, you’ll see a fairly distinct lack of engagement on my part. Mostly, I’ve posted links to this blog or reposted things from other people. And I don’t miss the constant doomscrolling. So I don’t see a future wherein I suddenly start increasing my use of these channels.

My Instagram account is pretty active for two (or three) very specific reasons. One, the algorithm has my number. So, not infrequently my wife and I will spend a chunk of our day sending random funny videos to each other and giggling about it from opposite ends of the couch. (And then we turn off our phones and, like, actually talk to each other.) Two, as I’ve said before, I really only follow folks on there that I know in real life, and I’ve discovered that I more or less use the platform the same way I did way back in 2002 when I set up my very first website — as a way to let friends and family know what I’m up to. However, knowing that it’s a public account, it is also very much and very intentionally self-censored. Sure, if you follow me you’ll see pictures of my cats and know what conferences I’m traveling to; but I’m not exactly sharing my deepest thoughts, and certainly not the bad days. Please do not mistake this highly curated version of my life as an accurate reflection of the fullness of my experience here in this sahā world.

Also, just fyi, I am in the process of deleting my account on the Bird Site. My understanding is that that may not be technically possible, that since the cartoon supervillain took over and fired half of the employees, they don’t actually delete anything when you ask them. But I’m going to try anyway because of all the places where I know I’ve said and done stupid things on the Internet, the former Twitter holds the prestige of most likely to come back haunt me.

(Folks may be wondering about good old Facebook. I hardly ever use the site, indiscriminately accept almost every friend request, use the “memories” feature to delete old posts, and have, for the past year or so, used it mostly for shameless self promotion of the book and fundraising for the ALC. Don’t imagine that’ll change much and there’s no point in deleting the account since I know first hand that Facebook does not, in fact, delete your account when you ask.)

And what of the blog? My tens of readers will be heartened to know that I have no immediate plans to shut down the blog. But I also have no immediate plans to keep to my promise of posting regularly. I will, no doubt, pop in every now and again for self-promotional purposes or if something crosses my desk that I feel needs some (albeit minor) signal bump in the signal-to-noise ratio. But my guess is that I will have less and less time in the coming months to worry about keeping y’all informed of every stray thought that passes through my head. And when I do have things that need to be shared publicly, they are more likely to be institutional concerns, and thus shared via the Institute’s channels.

And what of my research? This question has been tossed at me several times this past year in two versions: (a) now that you wrote a book, what’s next; and (b) once you become president, will you have time to write or do research? My answer to both versions is more or less the same — I don’t know. In the short run, I have no immediate plans for another research project. The Making of American Buddhism represents, to me, something of the summation of most everything I’ve been trying say during my professional career. Taken together with my contribution to Richard Payne’s Buddhism under Capitalism and my forthcoming contribution to the Oxford Handbook of American Buddhism, I’m feeling pretty tapped out in regards to Important Things I Feel I Should Say about Buddhism Since I Have Ph.D. After My Name. And, again, in the short run, I’m going to focus on the Institute and the immediate tasks at hand.*

But I also have a very strong desire to write. Truth be told, I’ve had a strong desire to write for most of my life. I recall writing little stories to myself in random note books family members would give me when I was as young as seven or eight. By middle school, I was writing long-winded science fiction novels. In high school and early college, I branched out into realistic fiction and self-important poetry. All of that seemed to fade away and become replaced with academic writing which, let’s be honest, has been pretty successful for me, which is nice. But, and maybe this is just sort sort of mid-life crisis talking, there’s still that little kid in me somewhere that wants to write stories with aliens and robots set in post-apocalyptic utopias.

Or maybe I’ll fill my spare time with haiku. Who knows?

But if any of these things happen, I’m sure you’ll hear about it here on the website I’ve been maintaining, off and on, for over two decades now. In the meantime, though, it’s back to work.

* The astute reader will have picked up in The Making of American Buddhism that the author believes, strongly and deeply, that administrative and “behind-the-scenes” work is still work, something to be valued. And he’s looking forward to making his contribution to the field via his new role and not, necessarily, via writing obtuse volumes very few (normal) people will ever read.

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