Today, as I was dissertating, I began wondering what it is that I’m doing. Who will my work matter to, if anyone? I’m not doing brain surgery. I’m not finding a cure for cancer. I’m not even discovering a new mathematic formula that could resolve world debt.
A few hours later, I was on the phone with my brother discussing what I had written today. “I worked on my case narrative. But,” I said, “I realize that I’m not curing cancer so I’m starting to wonder why this is all important.”
Then he reminded me of something. This week is National Suicide Prevention Week in the U.S. And, he reminded me, people who send in postcards to PostSecret are often looking for someone to hear them — to understand their pain — so that they don’t commit suicide. And if I’m looking at those postcards (and I was looking at them today, all 251 of my data set), I see how many of them are about suicide. What does that say about how we communicate secrets and fears and hopes and love and anguish and pain and joy? And, he asked me, isn’t this what you do look at?
I study the human condition, I said. It’s a rhetorical perspective of it, but that’s what I do. And, he reminded me, we can do a lot of damage to our bodies with our minds, so even if you’re not curing cancer, you are giving us an insight into how and why we make the kinds of choices we do — and those are every bit as important as curing cancer.
While I won’t ever cure cancer, nor will I ever administer professional assistance to those who harbor suicidal thoughts, maybe my work is important. Even if it’s in some small way, it can be important. It can shed light on choices we make — even if it’s the language and imagery that is chosen to convey a message. Maybe. Just maybe, it can be important.