John Belcher

John Belcher
John Belcher

First published in The Tech on January 21, 2016

I knew I was in bad shape, that I couldn’t handle this myself. You keep going over and over in your head how to solve things, but I had so many problems, the whole system just broke down.

Being clinically depressed, you can be in extraordinary pain. Just existing can be painful. It’s very hard to see that other people are struggling with the same things. Part of the downward spiral is this feeling that you’re not making it here, you shouldn’t be here, that you’re not worthy of being alive.

If you’re clinically depressed, sometimes your cognitive processes are impaired. My favorite example is that I could not recite the Pledge of Allegiance. That’s something that anyone can do. But whatever was going on chemically in my brain, when I would try to recite something by memory, I could not do it.

What I didn’t realize was how important it is to be involved with people. Depression happens when you get in your head. You have to get out of your head, because your head is a very strange place. If you’re connected to other people, it allows you to get more perspective on your problems and to get away from the things that lead to this downward spiral. It’s a much better way to live.

I’m asocial, in the sense that many physicists are. I would rather be sitting in front of a computer screen than interacting with people. I always did very well in school, and that was how I accomplished things. I was just more interested in abstract ideas than people. Dealing with people was not painful, but it was always difficult. I still have trouble calling people I don’t know on the phone, and I’m 72 years old.

Having been depressed has been a major positive for me. It’s one of these things, if you live through it: difficult times make you grow. My motivations have changed—what I think is important. My priorities are more oriented towards people as opposed to doing scientific projects. I still enjoy sitting in front of a computer at the Linux command line. That’s what I used to do all the time. Now I’m a little more multifaceted.

I’m happy with the progression of my life. I’m very lucky to be a faculty member here. I don’t think I would’ve done that differently, but I’m glad to have a different perspective on things now.

There’s a whole mindset here at MIT, which is very ambitious. It’s very hard to break through that, unless you have some personal crisis. We tend to be asocial, off building something in our closets that we’ll bring out and impress our colleagues with. They’ll go, oh my God, that is so bright, I don’t know how you did that, and you’ll say oh yes, that’s right, I’m really bright.

One of the things that was good about my travails was that if I hadn’t had them, I would have been trying to climb that ladder until the day I dropped dead. In some sense, I am still trying to climb that ladder, but it’s balanced by a realization that there are much more important things, like being able to walk and get out of bed in the morning.

I was raised as a Southern Baptist, but I decided I was an atheist at the age of 13. So I’m not into religious interpretations. Let me take that back. When I had the melanoma, and my children were eight and eleven, I made deals with every god that I could think of. If they would just let me live until my kids got out of high school, that would be enough and I would be devout the rest of my life. Of course it didn’t happen like that, and my kids are now 35 and 38.

The most spiritual I’ve ever felt was sitting in support groups where people are sharing anonymously, where you don’t know their names, and they’re talking about things they’re going through. That’s the closest I’ve ever felt to being spiritual. I never felt that in a church.

One of the reasons that MIT is the way it is is that we tenure based on outside professional reputation. There are a lot of things that follow from that that are not good, but we’ve made the choice, and I would not make a different one. Some of the uniqueness of MIT comes from that choice. And it means that some faculty are wonderful human beings, and some aren’t.

We have a really excellent institution. There are bad things about it, and I’m not quite sure how you fix them, because some of them are the same things that make us excellent. So it’s a real conundrum.

John Belcher is the Class of 1922 Professor of Physics

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