If you try your best, you can.“Optimistic,” Radiohead, Kid A
If you try your best, you can.
The best you can is good enough.
It’s the end of August and school is about to start again. For the past month, I’ve been trying to figure out how I feel about my upcoming second year of graduate school. Throughout this summer I’ve been slowly and carefully reading the marginalia from my first year of graduate study, unpacking situations, reliving conversations, and trying to learn from my experiences. I was unhappy, perhaps the most unhappy I’ve ever been in my life. Everything I had once thought about myself, the great pillar of my self-worth, seemed suddenly called into question. I was worried that I had made a mistake in coming to grad school, or in picking Yale, or in deciding on a research topic which seemed to get more frayed and frayed at its edges. I was unsure of what it meant to be a scholar, of how scholarly writing or scholarly reading should look. I was disenchanted with academia and uncertain of the weight of my dreams. I was unsure of myself as a person, not really aware of how people understood me, displeased with how my friends had begun to treat me, and unsure of how to remedy these situations. I was very lonely, and I felt at times as if no one wanted to be around me. I began to think I was a person undeserving of close friends.
I have had the best summer of my life. I haven’t had the obligation of working full-time, nor have I been bombarded with extracurricular schoolwork or career development. I wasn’t suffocated by roommates or drowning in personal responsibilities. I have not succumbed to my nasty seasonal bouts of Social Media Envy, which have for the past eight or nine summers made all kinds of social media somewhat unbearable. I spent the summer reading and thinking and sleeping and eating ice cream and going to the gym. I refurnished my living room, moving furniture around. I purged my life of unnecessary baggage. I spent days alone with minimal human contact, building on myself. I read books I needed to have read, not only for my research, but also in order to teach myself what reading ought to look like. When I did not like a book, I did not finish it, and I did not feel bad about not finishing it; it was a bad book which did not merit being finished. It was a summer without guilt, without responsibility, and, for the most part, without people.
This summer, I learned a lot about myself. It was information that I didn’t have the time to really unpack, bits of knowledge that had been sitting in odd corners of my apartment in their original, sealed packaging. I learned that I am confident about some things. I learned that my bouts of depression were linked to an insecurity in my abilities or my possibilities as a scholar. I learned that the ways I was approaching academia were somewhat childish and fantastical, that the academy is not such an ideal workplace, that working in academia is quite bloodthirsty and political despite the alleged “pursuit of knowledge” at the core of the academic trade. I learned what academic writing actually looks, and how research is supposed to look and feel like. I learned that most rejections are impersonal, and that it is important to let people know how you feel, and not necessarily just what you think. I’ve learned that loving yourself is not relative, that loving yourself means learning to live comfortably in your skin, not just tolerating your body in anticipation of some great, forever postponed change. I’ve learned that rude people do not deserve your loyalty because you selfishly believe you can “change them” or that it’s your responsibility as their friend or as “a good person” to do this. I’ve learned that there is always a conversation beneath every argument, that what is being argued about is just a proxy war for a greater, bloodier conflict. I’ve learned that I’m not so magnificent that people must yield to me, must defer to me. I’ve learned that it’s helpful to have something in which to have faith, be it a religious institution, or something more mystical, like astrology. I’ve learned all of this and much more during this first year of independence.
This post will be short, since there isn’t much else to say. I have a tendency to write longwinded posts outlining and examining the intricacies of my mental state. Because I have to be in a certain place to write these posts, my posting on this blog is often sporadic and my entries confessional. I do not want to turn writing into a kind of personal fight with the self (although all forms of writing – all communicative acts – are exactly this), nor do I want to make this blog a repository for my negative, often ill-begotten emotions. Moving forward, I will strive to write more frequently and about a wider range of topics. Without a doubt, my trademark confessional posts will still figure, but the aim is for them to have their point and place here, among other goings-on in my life. It has been brought to my attention that my blog makes it seem that I am going through a great crisis, and it makes people unnecessarily worried about my safety. Yet, this is no crisis; these are just growing pains. Perhaps it speaks to my skill as a writer that I can cause people alarm, or perhaps it only underlines the fact that we solemnly speak about mental health, a topic which remains within the purview of the mad and the lost. And while I do struggle with bouts of madness, I do not want to make people think that I am not functional (whatever that means) or that action must be taken at this very moment to “save me from myself.” I have had some rough patches, and cannot blame all of my woes on the slow path towards maturity, but I have to admit that part of my qualms and tribulations are rooted in a discomfort produced by the slackening of my own chrysalis. While I may feel that everything is doomed and lost at times, I still feel, I must continue to feel, that things can and will improve, that what is horrible today is not so terrible tomorrow. As I get older and learn more about myself, I become more self-assured of who I am, and who I’m destined to become. I am no longer privy to proteanism, to bending and yielding to people in order to make room for myself in their lives; I am no longer swayed – or I am increasingly less swayed – by a desire for reciprocity in relationships, a give-and-take, a love-and-love-back. People give what they can and I have to be willing to accept what I am given with gratitude. While it is easy to write these things, committing them to muscle memory, stitching them into my brain-fabric, takes time, of which I am certain I have plenty.
On the eve of a new semester, I am uncharacteristically optimistic. I’ve picked myself up, dusted myself off, given myself a firm talking-to, and allotted myself the time to absorb and make sense of what was indeed a painful series of self-truths to swallow. Now I look toward the future with fresh and ambitious eyes, my spirits revitalized and ready for a new set of challenges ahead.
Picture: Elizabeth Catlett, Roots