Love and Loss

A Professor's Final Message to Students

I work in a doctoral program in psychology and have for the last 47 years. That will end in six weeks, two months before my 75th birthday. I teach in a program in behavior analysis I helped start 35 years ago, and the program director unexpectedly asked me to say a few words at the last meeting, moments after taking my last program student/faculty picture. 

My first words out of my mouth were these: love and loss is one thing, not two. 

There is a bittersweet quality to human life. We are the only creature on the planet who thinks symbolically, and so we know a lot about impermanence. We know “this too shall pass.” We know we will die. We even know that eventually the sun will become a red giant and engulf the earth.

And yet we still care. We strive to learn. We create. We cooperate with others. And I’m blessed to be in a field – psychology – that can even study these very phenomenons.

I looked out and saw dozens of graduate student faces, and just moments before we had celebrated two new doctoral degrees from our program. These two students will leave us now and go on their way. We all applauded, in part because their work was finished. If we – as teachers, as student colleagues, or as a graduate program – have done our job, these two new PhDs will go on to serve humanity. In some way, their future work will be informed by the training and the people in the program, but they will move on. And we will feel that loss. 

I saw teachers and colleagues in front of me. At their best, these are people dedicated to learning how we can do a better job in serving humanity with psychological principles and methods, imparting that knowledge to others. And yet more faculty members have died or left the program than now teach in it. Their fingerprints are left behind in the culture they helped create. The older among us sometimes even recognize these fingerprints. Most of the time we all benefit mindlessly, standing on the shoulders of those who went before.

Whether others know it or not, when we do our job lovingly, we create something that lasts. In every field, it lasts in our culture, and in our traditions, as well as in any direct benefit it has. In every field. Where would we be without garbage collectors? And in my field it lasts also in our science. 

No, not forever. But that is why love and loss is one thing. 

 When you study hard as a student, aren’t you doing something loving for yourself and others who will benefit from your knowledge? When you stay up to 2 AM in the morning discussing some fine points of your field with another student, aren’t you doing something loving for them and for the others who may benefit from their ability to function at a higher level?

When you raise a problem in the program, or Department, or University, and pursue injustice with fairness and vigor, aren’t you creating a culture of caring that might – just might – be there when you are gone and might – just might – prevent others from being wronged?

When you do that bit of research and write it up for publication isn’t that a loving thing to do – for love of your field and all of those who can use the knowledge it contains? Do you know that originally scientific journals were nothing more than bundled letters, shared with friends and colleagues? That’s a fact. At their best, scholarly articles are love letters to friends.

Contributing while knowing we will leave, or that sometimes we will fail, or even that sometimes we will not live up to our highest values, is an act of caring. In fact, contributing knowing that you are not perfect, and it may be futile, and, yes, that you will be forgotten is a pretty high form of caring. Love is at the essence of all of these. Love is us at our best. It embraces impermanence and says aloud “this matters, nevertheless.” The way to love your work is to do your work lovingly – and the only way to do that is with full knowledge of finitude, failure, and loss. 

So my final words, in my final meeting as a faculty member, were to invite the students and faculty members before me to take a stand to pursue the deep purposes of their work – and to care about putting these purposes into the world. That is a path to creating a more loving career, but also a more loving work group, program, department, university, professional field, and world.

And a bedrock of that choice is this: love and loss are one thing, not two.

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