Beyond the Bullet Points: When will the Mission Die?

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I asked my doctor how I would die. Her answer was that If this treatment didn’t work we had more treatments after that and another treatment after that and still more tries after that. And if all that doesn’t work no one dies in pain. None of this, of course, answered my question which is how does one actually die from lymphoma. It was, however, the answer I expected. No one wants to accept failure. No one wants to be part of a loss of hope.

To be sure, my path with cancer has had its times of lost hope when, as my wife and I refer to it, “I go there.” However, this is not why I asked the question. I wasn’t giving up. I didn’t ask out of despair. I wanted to know. I needed to know. I needed to understand because, for me, I need to know what I am fighting against.

I tell you this story because I have been talking with a few people I really admire who are asking tough questions that could also be easily mistaken for despair. They are questioning professional choices. They are, in their words, becoming cynical. They are “going there” and beating themselves up for it. They seem to feel that people who fight for progress, who are pioneers, aren’t allowed to ask those questions. For some reason questioning a mission is a sin and an admission of defeat. It is not.

I wrote before about using cancer. Using it to re-prioritize, to take a break. While I had hoped that my using cancer days were done, I find myself again facing that re-prioritization. This chemo is tougher than the last. I find it harder to concentrate. I have less stamina. Where the last chemo regime resulted in keynotes and a MOOC, this one is focused on treatment and teaching. This is not a defeat. This is a chance for a professional break and a useful distance. Rather than pumping out the next keynote, I can listen. Rather than pushing out a paper I can read beyond libraries. This is a necessary pause. I have had them before after the closing of AskERIC and after virtual reference went from hot topic to standard service. But that time lead to participatory librarianship and the Atlas. It allowed me to look deeper.

A pioneer and a professional should have a mission and seek to change the world. They will also encounter resistance. They will question the mission and they will question themselves. They will go there. Do not despair. Do not punish yourself for doubt. Do not be afraid to ask how that mission or how that passion will die. Because here is the secret. A good mission and a solid passion will not die easily.

Do you want to know the answer to how this cancer will kill me? It will kill me if I do nothing. It will kill me if I ignore it or if I feel the price of the fight is greater than the price of death. It is not. Changing the world is hard. The cost of the mission is high. It is only reasonable to ask how high and you can only know that answer if you honestly assess the cost of failure. If that cost becomes too dear, then perhaps you were meant to change the world another way.

10 responses on “Beyond the Bullet Points: When will the Mission Die?

  1. Linda Martin

    Bless you, Dave. I really needed this right now. You have no idea how far your ripples reach. Praying for you and your family.

  2. stephenabram

    David: I needed to read this today. A lot. Thank you. It puts me in mind of 18 years ago when I faced your same struggle (and won! Yay for science and positivity and friends/family.colleagues).It made me a better librarian and a better person for it. They’re cliche but it’s still true that ill winds bring springs and clouds have silver linings. Keep writing, that’s making a difference for me as we all try to build the new librarianship and not lose our old values…

  3. Wendy Newman

    For very different reasons, I’m another one who needed to read this today. Thank you. It’s easy to say “when you’re going through hell, keep going”. You’re walking it, with inspiring grit and grace. I’m sorry these treatments are so tough, and I wish you well across the miles.

  4. Nicolette Warisse Sosulski

    Thank you. You continue to inspire us all. And that sounds so flat, pat, and all sorts of stuff, I imagine. You don’t want to inspire right now, I am thinking–you would gladly chuck the inspirational to return to the old normal.

    Know, however, that you move my heart and those of all around you, just as you stir their brains and passions when the Reference Reverend gets to signifying. Know that you are making us think just as hard and reflect just as much on what makes a difference.

    We love you.

  5. stephanie patterson

    These are inspiring remarks, and I am grateful to read them because of the profound connection they make to my professional life. My mission has been to begin a career as a high school librarian in school of 2000 students that had a physically large space (7000 sq ft) that was basically a storage area for stale resources with very little traffic (student or teacher). This is the 6th year, and there has been quite a bit of resistance from every stakeholder group other than students. I’ve questioned the mission often, and described myself as the figure in the Edvard Munch painting of ‘The Scream’ more than once. I am still very passionate about this, and did not leave a 10 year stint as a lawyer to not make a difference for high school students who need to be taught and empowered to think more critically. Thankfully the common core standards support libraries in the K-12 arena and the district is beginning to focus on a renovation project to replace the vintage 1970s furnishings and fixtures because the naugahyde coverings on the chairs are beyond the pale and the middle schools are being renovated to new and under construction now. I’m optimistic that movement is beginning, but guarded as the superintendent is about to leave the district just as this enters the planning phase. These remarks give me strength to keep moving forward.

  6. Mark Moran

    I read a lot of posts and articles. Maybe 50 each day. I find myself coming back to this one and re-reading it nearly every day. This week it will inform a presentation that we give to 6,000 students, because it should touch as many people as possible. Thank you for writing it.

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