Back when I was struggling to finish my dissertation, I asked the universe to give me peace and release. The many years of graduate school weathered me; the eroded my sense of self and crushed much of the confidence I once had. Each year was wrought with some drama or some fresh new hell to endure at the hands of others who, I felt, controlled my fate in graduate school. There were many days when I wanted to escape it all, to quit and throw it all away and simply return to the place that had become home. In my mind, I thought, if I could just be rid of the pain and torment of the PhD, I would be free.
Of course, I knew that quitting would never allow me the peace and release I desperately longed for. Somewhere in the back of my mind I knew I would never be able to fully let go of the lingering feelings of perceived inadequacy. I would compare myself and I would find myself wanting. The decision to quit would haunt me, and I would always wonder, “What if?”
Academic culture, in particular, fosters a kind of vitriolic comparison. You see your peers obtaining awards, publishing papers, obtaining grants, and even if you are doing the same, you rarely feel as if you are doing enough. Or, more accurately, that you are enough. It is more than a vicious cycle, though. It’s a mind game you become accustomed to without fully realizing it. It is the drive of the academy, and it’s hard to reframe it. Instead, I think, many graduate students and even professors internalize it.
Debating whether to quit or not, however, wasn’t about comparing myself with others as much as it was about comparing myself to what I wanted and what I knew I was capable of. Where academic culture indirectly encourages us to compete with others, I think we overlook the reality that we are really competing with the vision we have of ourselves and our own happiness. When we realize this, though, I think we become better equipped to make the best decisions for ourselves in moments of uncertainty and doubt because we are reminded that we are enough.
In persevering through the doubts, uncertainty, and darkness, which led to me to question quitting or not on at least three separate occasions, I became familiar with low. Low was painful. I found myself anxious, depressed, and incredibly confused about my future direction. I ruminated on thoughts of “failure,” thinking that I was either already a failure because I hadn’t done enough compared to my peers or that I would be a failure if I didn’t finish my PhD. Rooted in such comparison to others, I would be failure.
Yet, rooted in comparison to myself, I knew otherwise. As I cast of comparison to others and focused on myself and my wants, needs, and desires, low ultimately became strengthening. Somewhere along the way I challenged my negative self-talk. I began to find and cherish the reassurance I had in my social and emotional communities of support in family, friends, and chosen family. I bucked up, sat down, and wrote everyday, reminding myself that I was stronger than my thoughts. I counted my progress, not in words or page counts, but in showing up and doing the work each day as a ritual. I knew I was capable and I knew I wanted to finish the PhD if I made it the single priority of each day.
And so, the entire month of November was an endless stream of days where I sat at my home office for hours on end, typing, reading, and revising, as the background music blurred into a jumble of melodic white noise that barely kept a beat to my thoughts. I ate breakfast, but I didn’t find myself hungry again until sometime before dinner. I skipped lunches without realizing it. I didn’t move from my thoughts or my words; I wanted them displayed on the screen instead of floating in my head.
I dug deep and summoned the strength and focus to finish my dissertation because I knew, for me, it was my path to peace and release. Low tested me and challenged me to understand myself in ways I never knew possible. As hard as it was to explore low and continue to draw closer and closer to that narrow light at the end, it strengthened me. I found myself more resilient, empowered, and whole. I started to understand that low–the depths of which I had never experienced before–helped me trust myself more. It helped me find my voice, which cried out again and again, “I’m not going out that way!”
Today, I know the universe answered me. It wasn’t in the way I expected, but then, so few things work out the way we plan. Uncertainty, after all, is the natural condition of our lives, and as much as we plan, we cannot ever fully compensate for the events, conditions, or accidents that transpire. Yet, we can learn from uncertainty, and as we do, we can apply those lessons to our lives elsewhere.
I needed to find greater strength in myself before the answer would mean so much, and I know that now. I needed to know low because it allowed me to understand myself in all I am and in all my imperfections, to better savor high, and to ultimately help others by sharing my experiences and knowledge. I hope to continue to do just that with my work here.