Friday, March 8, 2019

This is Your Brain on Graduate School: Part II, the Bad News

But, also, for whatever reason, graduate school was the first time in my life I began to value myself based on someone else's standards for me. I think most of my peers at Notre Dame experienced this in high school and in undergrad, and, for this reason and pretty much this reason alone, I am endlessly grateful I was homeschooled. To have a space where something as intimate as learning is free from competition or anxiety to compare myself to others was a blessing. For learning is an intimate activity, it is soaking in the world around you and letting it form you into a full-fledged human. It's a breath-takingly dangerous venture: this dialogue between your soul and the world. And, just as it is difficult to have an authentic conversation in a café where the elderly couple the table over, slurping their soup in silence, elbows gliding by a thin margin past yours, can overhear whatever you tell each other, it's difficult to have that authentic conversation with the world through learning when you are mostly worried about the performance. Anxiety about what others are saying (maybe they're having a better conversation???) or how they are judging your conversation is a distraction from the business at hand: thinking and conversing with other thinkers.

Those four years of high school prepared me and insulated me enough that, at Notre Dame, instead of freaking out about grades (as I wish, as an adult, sometimes I would have), I continued my business of bumbling through the conversation. Sometimes my attitude towards the discipline of learning was more like overhearing a conversation happening at the table next to me, but, regardless, it was all my own. And for the most part, it worked well enough. I left college much as I had entered: still lacking discipline, with more than enough energy and passion to tackle any project, the propensity to take on too many of them, and bursting with love for conversation—in the classroom and beyond.

The second round was a somewhat different story.

I distinctly remember the semester that anxiety entered the conversation. My first semester, I pranced through in much the same fashion I did undergraduate. Only I was blessed with a more adult work ethic from working with high school students, and I was equipped with a keen desire to be in class and a renewed focus on doing the work.

It was the second semester in which I discovered myself doubting if I could do this project, why I was doing this project, and, for the first time, comparing myself to people who were people I didn't want to be. I didn't want to be Joe or Conor, and I don't want to be Tim and I certainly didn't want to be the blessed Carl! But I wanted to be saying what they were saying in class, because what they were saying was intelligent, and intelligent in a way that the academic community valued.

Perhaps that was when I realized there was a conversation happening I was not a part of, but here I was in the middle of it.

In some sense, this is also the business of learning: entering midstream into the conversation and learning through immersion. Picking your way through this new language you are born into.

Learning new languages is one of the chief joys of the human living. Thus, to continually learn new academic languages is a deep delight. But learning new languages in the classroom recreates the anxiety of the traveler in the foreign country: an anxious turn to exteriority. My environment is so other, so completely unassimilated into myself that my own internal measures of success, of thriving are thrown into confusion. I can only determine my well-being, my survival chances, by comparing myself to the community around me.

How do I order food? I listen and mimic their words.
How do I find the right bus stop? I absorb myself in following someone else's lead.
How do I formulate my sentences correctly? I ape the construction of those around me.

It is a skill of adaptability, our greatest evolutionary strength, to turn our gaze outward, and focus on the habits and values of this new community. And yet, in this learning a new language, we can forget our own. Our native tongue can become rusty, our own voice sound strange.

In this way, I find that I have lost my own knowledge of my own heart. As I alit from the subway at the 116th Street Station, I feel a grip of pain. That old pang of imposter syndrome. I am not a Columbia Student. No one has ever invited me into their Ivy League Club. Rejection stings my heart. Then I laugh.

Renée, have you ever wanted to be an Ivy Leaguer. Of course not. My undergrad application to Yale didn't even have the dignity of Rory-Gilmore-shaped aspirations. It was solely driven by a love of theatre, a love I am so estranged from. What does it mean to me now? As I think of scootering around my cul-de-sac, reading voraciously as a child, playing pretend in the backyard, writing short stories on papers that still live in folders, I think that this is how I have always defined myself: as someone who seeks beauty, who tells stories, who loves the world around her with generosity, and pours herself over it like too much syrup. I have measured my value by how much fun I'm having: the good and deep kind of fun of clear thinking and noticing the world around you and living authentically into the surprises of God. hat sort of fun. That kind of adventure.

I am most happy when I understand myself as living a story, not of my own devising, but one that has been given to me. This doesn't make me in the least passive, it just means that I am not seeking external validation for the choices I make. I am not seeking for anyone else to tell me that the story I am living is good. I know the story is good, because it comes from a God who is good. And then, I can get busy doing what I have always done: loving what is around me with generous energy.

You are good at enjoying things, says Sam. Well, that is what things are for, I respond. There is nothing better than celebrating: the world around you, the people who populate it, and the drama that sparks between the two and you.

So, this is what I am giving up for Lent: the unhappiness of this graduate-school, success-oriented, status-conscious mode of thinking. It will have to be unbuilt brick-by-brick, but, so help me God, Jericho will fall.

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