I began 2019 on a plane to Paris. I was going to conduct some archival research, or at least this was my excuse. In hindsight, I didn’t really do much research, although I did spend most of my time in the belly of the BnF. I went for the purpose of pushing myself to do something I found kind of frightening. The prospect of traveling to another country unaccompanied made me a bit too aware of how free I truly am. I write this two days after leaving the infantile protection I still enjoy within my parent’s presence, having returned to New Haven where I’m entirely an adult, like it or not. A year ago, the notion of my independence, much coveted as a child, filled me with an unanticipated kind of dread. Even though I had technically been living on my own as an adult during my first two years of grad school, I hardly felt as if I really was independent. Yale had taken over my guardianship, was paying me an allowance, taking me to my doctor’s appointments while giving me enough space to think I was doing all of these things myself (all that’s changed is my awareness of this). Yet, I still found myself frightened by my own freedom. The existential cliff of being autonomous and ungoverned, finally cast off into dark and ominous waters. I could go to Paris and have experiences I think I need. I could stay and wonder what would have happened had I gone. In both scenarios, I would be forced to bear my own consequences.
I had to acknowledge that it was me who controlled the tempo and key of my life.
That this frightened me so much, as I was forcing myself to apply for the grants, come up with the project description, get the letters of recommendation, buy my tickets, and book my lodging, told me one important thing about myself: I did not trust myself. I had my freedom finally, but I did not know what freedom meant or that freedom could possibly feel so undesirable once it was attained. The burden of choice, the threat of repercussions. Placed atop my feigned belief in being able to handle anything the world or God threw my way, my mental composition seemed unfit to handle the everyday crisis of being. At times I thought I wouldn’t be able to do it, that things were too hard. Like most people my age, I leaned into the web of lies that tells us that other people can steel our resolve, that things like love and companionship can illuminate the sea’s darkness. I grew lovesick for love I’ve never had. The notion of friends having social connections to which I was not firmly attached bothered me, because I perceived of their activities together, as friends among themselves, as based on my exclusion. How absurd, but one cannot really be aware of oneself when they are so preconditioned to silence reason when feeling takes the mic. I expected people to just “get me” and for me to just “get people,” because it all seemed so easy when I looked in on other people’s lives.
My voyeurism told me that I was insufficient in some way. I had convinced myself that something out there could fix the aching lack, and I was disappointed when I could not manage to find this something.
All the while, I had not been able to name what was ailing me.
I was too naïve to realize that my pain wasn’t any different than anyone else’s, and that for most it was a tolerable, perhaps even permissible, pain. A pain for which the word pain may seem even too harsh, too acute. Not a pain, but an ache. Not an ache, but discomfort. A bit of gas Indigestion. Nausea.
I started wondering at 14 if, when I was being assembled at the plant, someone had fastened something a bit too tight
Added a bit too much of a strong ingredient.
Overcooked, overstuffed, ruined it?
Had someone let the pot boil dry?
And if so, must the boy be thrown away?
For most of the 2010s, I was a growing young man. Like most young men, I had to learn how to be defined by a sense of bodily and social empowerment. Yet, of this I felt I bore a kind of lack. The reason for it? Who knows. Like many men I was put in leadership positions for which I was, perhaps, not the most qualified. I was given opportunities which I accepted without thinking about who else was in the running, or why I had been chosen. When I spoke, people listened to me, or at least pretended. People treated me with a kindness, a diligence and a regard of respect that my friends who are women never easily enjoyed. I was immune to contempt, whereas the black women with whom I made easy company seemed so prone to it. And like many men, I thought about this without acting upon it, not knowing how, or if it was appropriate. That a friend of mine and I could act so similarly yet be so evenly despised and beloved by the same people, struck me as an oddity which one could not change, or reason with.
So I did nothing, like most men, knowing that I was acting in my inaction.
This was a decade marked by romantic anguish and longing for things I could not have. It was not a desire for person, but for what person can give me, for the accoutrements, the benefits of person. I liked the idea of romance but was not romantic. I liked the idea of people but did not like people. I liked the idea of love but also did not believe in it.
In 2013, I went to Swarthmore. I sought out “intellectual community.” How I had allowed myself to so inflate my ego, to become so arrogant that I looked down on people with whom I went to high school, to the point where I did not value their intelligence at all, seeing them merely as people with whom to smoke weed and eat pizza, is something I still question. I blame it on the pain of being an unhappy and angsty and scorned teenager from an upper middle-class family, too black for white kids, too white for black kids, too fat to seriously date, yet too handsome to unsee. In hindsight, I think I was just a bitch. I’ve always wondered if my inner criticism and predisposition to callousness qualifies as bitchy behavior. By virtue of being a man, people prefer other words to describe the archetypical antifemininity of bitchiness; asshole, douche, dick, things associated with the basest of human experiences and phenomena. I was not cruel, but I was mean. The difference? When I hurt people, it did not make me feel better about myself, nor did their dysphoria please me. I felt a nothing that hurt more than it soothed me, because it showed me that I could and was willing to inflict pain on others, to make others bear what I bore, if only for a few minutes. When I went to Swarthmore, in seeking out “intellectual community” in some shape or form, I also sought to excise from my character this bitchiness, this hypercriticism and unappealing cynicism. I was friendly, kind, loving; a model gentleman. I repented, apologized, abreacted, let go. I felt myself getting lighter.
It was also in 2013 that my anxiety disorder came into full bloom. During the first year, I looked back in search of signs in my past. I could remember fits of so charged with violent emotional excess that I would flail about in my bedroom, thrashing my body into things, hoping secretly that one particular hit would take me out, but never trying, always fearing this mythical blow. These I had always dismissed as childish “fits” and nothing more. There were also the nights when I would find myself staring at the wood lattice frame underneath the top bunk, thinking about interactions from days prior, replaying them at .5x speed, analyzing them for every detail, my mind a crawler of text without punctuation or spaces. There was no remedy to this kind of thinking, nor a means of evading it. It would not happen often, but when it happened I could do little to stop it. In hindsight, I do not think of this as anxiety; it did not have the feeling anxiety gives you, the way everything seems a bit too tight and too close, and your body just a bit too big, people’s words a bit too loud and seemingly always, in some way, about you. However, bits of unavoidable and seemingly uninspired bouts of pensiveness would characterize the build-up to the anxiety attacks which peppered my typical week at Swarthmore.
What could I have been going through in 2013 and 2014, in the height of the storm? What was it about going to Swarthmore that opened a kind of gate for me? Would this have been my life had I gone to Carnegie Mellon or Northwestern? Swarthmore was a hot bed of mentally unwell people. It’s difficult to tell if this was because Swarthmore produced an environment which hindered wellness, the student body and faculty exuding this sort of “if you’re not struggling, you’re not trying hard enough” philosophy. Maybe it was because Swarthmore had a reputation of being hard, and thus attracted the most sadistic (and thus already predisposed to unhealth) kinds of students wanting to test just how fucking smart they are. Maybe it was because Swarthmore was a school with reveled in the fact that its students were just so fucking smart, yet almost invariably not smart enough for the schools they had originally wanted to attend – that Swarthmore was a school which sought to rescue kids already wounded by unexpected rejection, a school of salutatorians and silver medalists.
Is it true that smart people are more prone to mental illness?
Are the students at Swarthmore even smart?
What makes someone smart?
In hindsight, there isn’t anything special about Swarthmore’s mental health problem. Perhaps it was because the school was so small and seemingly so well-staffed with mental health professionals and specialists that it seemed everyone went to CAPS, that everyone was getting medicated, that everyone could be caught on an off day sobbing into a sandwich in Essie’s.
Everyone everywhere is going through something.
The only thing I can say about Swarthmore is that it seemed that the people I met were not able to go through it with the prescribed grace of an adult human being. Blame it on tight quarters, a small population, or being marooned in the suburbs of Philadelphia with little means of escape and less to escape to. Blame it on the fact that the 19-year-olds of our current epoch are generally not prepared to be self-effacing adults. An adult is not a biological term, but a kind of social performance. It’s the kind of person who plays the role so well that one can forget they are a person with feelings, and not just a psychologist or a math professor or an administrative assistant. Or mommy. Children are protected from seeing adults as people, but so too are adults protected from seeing one another as people. Few of the students I met at Swarthmore could do memorize the lines, recall the choreo, with as much grace and finesse as the few adults with whom I came in contact. And it was not because these adults were not smart, or because Swarthmore infantilized its students. The truth, I’m learning, is far more disconcerting.
The truth is that living is hard for everyone. There are the material conditions which make life hard, like not having access to shelter, food or healthcare, being persecuted with death, or having death rain down because you happen to live where you live – the denial of the right to be a body in space and time. Yet, when one no longer needs to worry about keeping the body-as-machine running, when one is left worrying about the mind, worrying about worry, one becomes aware of the true magnitude of life’s difficulty. And like a body which ails, so too do minds pretend they are not in pain, hoping that in pretending the pain becomes more manageable, or that we cease to feel it as pain. I spent the first four years of my adult life, away from home, wondering why I had been dealt an anxiety disorder, and only lately have I learned that the expectation placed on me is that not that I will ail in silence, but that I not allow my ailments, my lack, to create unnecessary preconditions for an already painful life. I continued to think, and in many ways still believe, that hell is other people, but this isn’t quite the truth. Like every human being, everyday life is a challenge with freedom, choice, responsibility, risk, and threat. That our lives are so intricately and irreparably weaved together, that my success and happiness in this life depends on you finding my service or my products or my character satisfactory, is only the butter in the grits.
Existence is not pain. This is not some choreopoem dedicated to cynicism and pessimism. I occasionally shock people who believe they know me with stains and spots of deep and unforgiving optimism. Existence is not pain, I’ve learned, but pain cannot be removed from existence. I shun the popular not because it’s mundane and predictable (its mundanity is the result of its predictability, and vice versa), but because its logics are so binary, so cut-and-dry and black-and-white, that they do not help me with the painful aspects of existence. Loveable superheroes who defeat despicable and disposable supervillains, lovers who manage to change the ugly and unpardonable aspects of their partners, revealing under the scurf a jewel of a person, comedies which pass jokes at the expense of people for whom we were never made to care, who do not matter – I won’t deny that these kinds of stories help people. It does me no good to pillory these people for being so ignorant and foolish as to believe idealistic garbage, because I doing so would only make the envy I bear in the wake of my lack sting even more. It would be so easy to be them, to be able to consume fables of diversity and inclusion, or women’s reproductive rights, or the imminent threat of a brown America, and not feel at all outside of the text, too skeptical of its tenets, too self-aware to be made unaware. Excess is at times too much to bear.
Existence is not pain, no. But an existence without pain is a hollow life. Some people use fantasy to numb existential pain. Other avoid the pain so much that they freeze at anything beneath the performance of humanity. I do not want to numb the pain or cut it out, because we cannot lose pain and preserve the shape and quality of other sensations. Pain is not a color in the rainbow of life, but its very saturation; it makes the yellows, reds, violets, greens, blues brighter or duller. I don’t want to live a dull grayscale life. Do you?
I can’t talk about this decade without mentioning rejection. Nothing so fanned the flame of my discontent as rejection. My fascination with blackness is, really, a navel-gazing search to understand the grammar and poetics of rejection. What does it do to a person, to consider themselves a reject? How does one cast off another person as a reject? What does the political exchange of power, its larceny and donation, do to a person? How do we develop criteria for rejection, and to where do we reject people? Reject, to throw back, to send or drive back, implies a directionality and origination. But what it this place to which we drive, in the words of Erving Goffman, the discredited and discreditable?
Rejected from literary magazines. Rejected from prospective friends. Rejected from prospective more-than-friends. Rejected from admissions committees, grant foundations, publications. When I was younger, it weighed on me. I sought out to limit my chances of being rejected by being the best scholar/friend/student/person I could be, to make myself an airtight candidate. I’ve applied for things I did not want, and pursued people I did not like, for the purpose of proving to myself that I would not be defined by rejection.
What I endured is light in comparison to what others have felt. This does not assuage the sting, but it reminds me that what stings for me burns and aches and rends flesh for others. I cannot lament and say that my rejections have gotten in the way of my career ambitions, either. What I did not receive was usually replaced by something I won or earned or was given. I have not yet learned to take pleasure in the wins and to ignore the losses, although their blows do not haunt me nearly as much as they once had. Last month I was rejected from a grant for which I applied and believed I had a decent shot. I barely blinked an eye at it, and instead began to hone my other applications to make these even better. Growth, I suppose.
Yet, the menace of rejection in the grandest sense – failure — looms. What is it that I’ll fail? Who’s to say, really. Sometimes it’s the idea that I won’t be as significant an academic as I’d like to be, but I don’t even know what kind of academic I want to be. I don’t know enough about academia to really make a decision or have a plan; this world remains opaque to me, organized by esoteric rites conducted in a language I don’t speak. I fuck up the words, can’t catch the rhythm. Sometimes it’s the possibility that I’m a pretty uninspired and uninteresting novelist, or that my novels will never reach the audience I want for them. Then I think, what kind of audience do you want? Do you think that audience wants to read your weird postmodern nonsense about ordinary peoples and the “throes of being?” If the novel gets written, an agent signed on, the monograph published, and it’s a dud, panned by some graduate student at USF or Brown as “trite” or “deeply dissatisfying “or “triggering,” will you fall to pieces? Will you drop dead? Will you implode?
The threat of possible failure without having an idea of what it is that you will fail is a symptom of anxiety. Anxiety is nothing if not the imminent fear of potential danger. It is thrill without security, panic without direction, the trauma of forgetting what traumatizes you. But while a region of my mind seizes with visions of terribly counterfactual realities, the anchored part of me continues to live and operate for two. I always manage to send things off, always manage to pull things together, to make sense of things I do not get, or to get things just in time. Sometimes I worry that this autopilot function of mine is a phase, a weird and temporary sea change in my developing, half-broken mind. I don’t know, and can’t know.
If I end up a failure, will I even be able to tell? Say I get tenure at the regional state school, write my two books to a tepid reception, train my handful of graduate students and undergrads to be rigorous if mild-mannered academics, get married to someone kind and similarly bland, and have a couple kids whom I love unconditionally but who have inevitably not met my expectations of them, while I even perceive this as being a failure? Considering I will have all the accoutrements of a stereotypical good life – the family, the job, ostensibly the house and most certainly the car – will I even register this kind of existence to be a failure’s life? Who’s to say my dreams – the ones I have right now – are not naïve, or that something will come along and dislodge them, or rip me from their path… and if this happens, will I have failed? Ought I to base notions of success in these arbitrary notions of career aspirations, positions, salaries, books published and talks given?
I’m not look for a measure with which to gauge my life. If anything, I find I have too many different tools using different units of measurement. In the 2020s, I want to be free of the need to measure and compare my life. Only in the solitude of freedom can I really make sense of the life I have built, and which has been given me, the directions in which it is headed, and the things I hope to do with it. I want to disentangle my life from the world, but I do not want to be apart from it.
Failure. How can a person even be a failure? What is failing, when existence is passive, and when none of us asked or petitioned to be born? How does one fail at something for which no effort (and yet, all of the effort in one’s being) is necessary?
Over the past ten years, I’ve grown tremendously from a fearful and angry 14-year-old to a 24-year-old who’s beginning to find contentment, however small, however fleeting. My life is not great, but it’s certainly not terrible. And this thing I am feeling, a kind of mild and tolerable, almost, just almost, ignorable dissatisfaction, is how I imagine most people feel. There are days when this dissatisfaction becomes so garishly bright and acute that I must avert my eyes by staying in bed and eating takeout. And there are days when I feel almost numbed by how utterly alright things are. This is just how things are, though. In TV shows, novels, films, and music, no one ever just has a bad day. Bad days always have some sort of narrative meaning; they always signify something. But sometimes they don’t, and this what really disturbs people. You having a shitty day is not because of some cosmic shift in your astrological chart or because you have displeased God in some secret way or because you are a wretch deserving a good flogging, but because existence is not without pain. I wouldn’t have it any other way, even if sometimes being hurts. I don’t want to anesthetize myself to life. I want all of the colors.
I bid goodbye to my teen years in the teens, to the ugly early twenties, to student life. I have been in school for every semester of this decade, from my second semester of high school in Spring 2010 to my fifth semester of graduate school in Fall 2019. This makes my stomach churn, that I’ve spent so long being a student, which really isn’t a useful skillset to have. I will write more about this in a separate blog post, as I did not anticipate this one would be so sprawling. Yet, I am conveniently at a number of thresholds in my life. Xavier the Perpetual Student is someone I leave behind in the 2010s, strung up in a web of negative emotions, bound in threads of insufficiency and one-upmanship. In 2013 I set out to reinvent myself as a kinder or more honest person, hoping I could leave the person I had been cultivating for four years in a shoebox under my bed, looked away in journals too painful to reread. In 2019, I am not trying to embalm the student, so young gifted and black, who’s good at writing but perhaps not good enough. I’m trying to make sense of this person, flaws and all, as we move from coastal waters to the deep sea of this series of crises we call existence.
Some people handle it very well.
Some people are quite bad at it.
Many cannot bear it.
Many refuse it.
I don’t know where I stand in at all. I don’t know where I’ll end up, if I’ll be content when I get there, or if it will be worth it.
I can’t know this.
What I do know, is that I must find contentment in not knowing.
Cheers to the New Year, and to the decade to come.