Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Growing Up

As I stumbled into the kitchen this morning in search of breakfast, I was hit by this thought: I'm really growing up; I'm pretty damn grown up. Not that there isn't more growing to do (there is *always* more growing to do, which to me is truly a joy to know--I don't plan to ever stop!), but for the first time in my life, I feel like an adult. I feel strong and confident and ready to face the challenges ahead of me with wisdom and integrity. Holy cow!

Strength has always been part of my make-up; I've survived tough times (parents' divorce, loneliness as a youth, years of depression); I've done hard things (nerve-wracking tests and performances, challenging university coursework, teaching eighth grade, questioning my religious beliefs); I've always lived with integrity, always been mature for my age. But what I feel now is different.

I was raised by a hard-nosed realist who insisted on responsibility and integrity and hard work and never taking the easy way out. I deeply absorbed these values and am very much indebted to them, but they also came at a cost. I came to see the world as a place where a truly joyful life would never be more than a fantasy, always to be intruded upon by the reality of hard work to be done and hard decisions to be made. I came to fear "hard truths" because I believed they would either puncture my current, fragile positive emotions, or they would add yet another layer of burden to my deep sense of emptiness and void. I did face "hard truths" and choose hard paths, but only out of a sense of duty. And it was oh-so-draining. Depression is so hard, ay!

In recent years, because I simply couldn't take it anymore, I've backed away from the "hard truths" model of life. For years the idea of responsibility has terrified me and I've shied away from it; the specter of dread duty sucking the life out of me has hovered increasingly too close for comfort. I've tried to learn to take it easy on myself and to enjoy things without feeling guilty, and I've made a lot of progress on both counts. I've tried to give myself permission to do what I want, to not worry about the truth all the time, to not worry about integrity all the time, to just live.

I am learning to just live, which is to say, I am learning to live, and it is beautiful and wonderful. And as I have given myself permission to do this, and as I have begun to find the real joy in life, I find myself coming full-circle. I now have the energy, courage, even desire to delve into the hard truths, the challenges of life. I can now brave pain, because now it is not pain on top of excruciatingly low self-esteem, or pain on top of a grey and hopeless world-view; now it is pain that is just part of the flow of life, that does not have the power to undermine my joy in the world or in my new-found confidence. Hard truths no longer threaten my positive emotions because I now know that joy is not a fantasy, but that it is the real stuff of life.

I am so strong! I am ready to challenge myself, to ask hard questions, to do hard things, and to not only survive the pain but thrive in spite of it, to rejoice in the knowledge of my own strength, to rejoice in my continued growth. I am ready to go out there, take risks, experience magic, feel pain, and LIVE through it all! Integrity and responsibility are not dread duties; they are challenges that I elect for myself, because I know that I am fantastic, and I plan to see how far I can go in this incredible journey.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Waking up

I feel fuller, on a consistent basis, than I have felt in years. I am coming alive; waking up. This doesn't mean I'm happy all the time; I'm okay with that because I finally don't feel empty. I am FEELING things. I can't tell you how long it's been since I've really felt things.

I've been going through a bit of heartbreak, to tell the truth. I met a great guy. It was brief but we had a deep connection, and it was just enough to give me a taste of what I've been longing for all these years, and then it was gone. I never expected to be drawn to someone so fast (I'm not much of a romantic), but I went with it and allowed myself to feel. Partly, I have felt gratitude for the amazing time spent with this person; when I was with him I felt inspired and deeply appreciated. This experience, indeed, helped push me to believe that the richness of life that I long for belongs not only in fairy tales but is real, attainable. Also, I have been feeling a longing for him that has been slowly replaced by sadness. I am sad partly because I miss this particular person, but also because I have been alone for too long, and it is painful to have the need for companionship momentarily filled but then left empty again, more wanting than ever. The sadness, heartbreak I feel has shown remarkable longevity given the brevity of the actual encounter.

There was, of course, pain before; what distinguishes this pain is my new-found ability to feel it fully. To face it, to not shrink from it. That ability, in turn, comes from the more fundamental change, the most important change: I am learning to value myself, to love myself.

For most of my life I have suffered from low self-esteem, unending guilt, feelings of worthlessness and deep inadequacy. Now and again I'd believe good things about myself, but the moment I encountered even the slightest hint of my supposed inadequacy, my confidence faded and words of praise (from myself or others) became grey, meaningless, impotent. My brain reasoned: sure, the fact that I'm kind to people is good, maybe makes me a "good person", but what good is a little, easy, boring kindness in the face of my inability to .... (work hard enough, be responsible enough, make a big enough impact on the lives of others, be confident enough, try hard enough, etc, etc). Nothing was enough; no amount of accomplishments, kind words, or good deeds could change my essential, irredeemable inadequacy.

As I write the words, I still feel the deep ache that they brought to my life, the sorrow that I have not yet fully moved through. How sad it is to spend your years mired in the knowledge of your failure. What incredible, unnecessary grief have I endured at my own hand, though not by my own choice.

I believe that the fleeting nature of my self-confidence greatly reduced my ability to deal with pain. For example, in the past when I was rejected by a love interest, I immediately put the subject out of my head, because the pain in store for me was not just the loss of affection from one person but a confirmation of my harrowing fears that I might not be loveable. I survived for years by feeling as little pain as possible--avoiding painful situations, shutting thoughts out of my head--because I did not have the reserves of self-love to pull myself back up after being knocked down by the small and large hurts of life.


Writing those words reawakened my self-doubt, sadness, hopelessness, so quickly and deeply that I had to stop writing and cry and then sleep, taking respite in the night.

But here I am the next day ready to continue. :)

So, yes, I am letting myself feel pain. New pains of heartache, old pains of doubt; but even the old pains, the old pains that were not just sadness but also dull and death-like, cannot hold me for more than a few hours. My spirit has awakened. I am not yet fully confident in its steadfastness but I am not worried, for it is here now and I know it is strong. I have hope. I am here. I am alive!

I am learning to love myself. So now I can feel heartache over a lost lover, because at the same time that I am sad for his absence, I am also rejoicing in my own beauty and wisdom and depth and splendor. My heart beats, throbs, with joy.

I still have lost moments, sad moments, dull moments, but I am so grateful for direction and for abundance of love and for cool breezes. I am reading again, because my heart is now able to engage; I have the energy to appreciate books again. I will be applying to grad school in the fall, and I've already found some programs I'm excited about. Hope is now a real presence in my life; hope for a rich life filled with love, for myself, for others, from others, for my work, for my music, for the beckoning earth.... Who knows, maybe under difficult circumstances my depression will relapse; surely I will still feel many moments of painful self-doubt; but I am not so cowed by these things anymore, because I am now experiencing that they are not all that there is to life; I am experiencing that more is possible. I still have fear; but I am going to be brave and give voice to my growing hope. :)

Yes, indeed, when the pain begins to sneak back in, and the fear shows its face, I find it very helpful to remind myself that I have courage to call on, and I can use that courage to keep putting one foot in front of the other. And one foot in front of the other has taken my this far--it's not so unreasonable to expect that a good life could actually be in store for me. I have courage; I have strength; I know this about myself and am proud of this, and that pride and confidence is a beautiful place to start.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Letter to a friend

Subject: Before they leave my head


I'd like to share a few thoughts! About what you were pondering, with regards to your career (whether you ought to stop working on so many projects and settle down as a full professor somewhere, or focus more deeply on just one project, etc).

Now, I don't know the answer to this question, because it's your life. But I've been figuring out some principles that I'm trying to put to use in my own life, that could perhaps help you think about this question.

Prestige is not all it's cracked up to be. I first began to realize this when I would get awards, and would feel thrilled for a moment but then the happiness would fade all too quickly. At first I thought it meant I just needed bigger awards (with my twisted self-esteem, as soon as I got an award I "realized" that the award must be pretty worthless/easy to get after all), but bigger awards didn't bring bigger happiness. But I was still driven to do something "impressive" because I just could not imagine the disappointment of living an unimpressive (non-prestigious) life. I joined a prestigious teaching program after I graduated; part of what drew me to it was knowing that people respected it and would be impressed with me for doing it. And boy did this teach me the lesson good and hard: I was SO depressed that year, that I finally really realized that no amount of prestige and respect was worth feeling that awful. I'd finally been humbled (in the best way possible), by being brought to a point of desperation that helped me see what really mattered in life, which was my own happiness. Prestige didn't bring me happiness and it never will; external respect didn't bring me happiness and it never will; doing things because I thought I "should" do them didn't bring me happiness and it never will. My "should" drive had, in fact, crippled my ability to work; the unhappier I was, the less I was able to do. There are people like your friend, who do everything out of sheer force of will, like wringing the last drop of water from a towel; you don't want to live like that, and you know it. There are people like me, who lose the ability to even act as they lose happiness; you don't want to live like that either. Prestige is not worth it. Happiness IS worth it, true self-respect where you yourself fully feel the value of what you're doing IS worth it; impressing others, even those you love, is not.

I was pondering why you love your projects so much, and the best guess I came up with (please do forgive me if I'm wrong), is that you love the feeling of creation, of manifesting your extraordinary potential into real, tangible creations in the form of helping to build the opportunities and thus lives of others. Whether it is for that reason or for another, please be careful before giving up something you love so much, something so joyful and life-affirming. There could potentially be valid reasons to change the course of your life; perhaps you want to focus more on a particular project, perhaps you truly love academic study enough that being a professor would be equally fulfilling, perhaps you want a family. But don't don't give it up to make someone else happy, to make someone else approve of you, to get status or prestige; such constraint is a kind of soul-death. Live a life you love, it's the only thing worth it. Truly truly.


Monday, May 4, 2009

Loved and inspired (Or: My dream. Or: Profundity. Or: JOY)

I've been having a hard time deciding how to go about this post. I had a fantastic weekend; profound even; so much so that I'm not sure how to do it justice in the format of a blog post.

My friends, here and elsewhere, really really love me. I'm starting to believe this not only on an intellectual level, but also in my heart. I am a person who can be, and is in fact, deeply loved. I am deeply loved. I wish I could properly express how long of a journey it has been, how far I've come, to begin to understand these words. Thank you, to all of you who have given me so much, who give me so much.

I also met an incredible person this weekend who gave me, among many other things, this question: "What is your dream?"

The question of what to do with my life has terrified me for years. Through the lens of my depression, every time I dared peek at my long-range future, all I could see was a deathly boredom, a quiet despair. I'm incredibly intelligent, talented, passionate, but any career I imagined brought with it the specter of eventual boredom, of emptiness, of confirmation of the fear that life could not bring me satisfaction. I've avoided the question, "what is your dream?" because I feared it would reveal an unbearably dark truth: that I have no dream, that I will always be unhappy.

The person I met this weekend beautifully exemplifies a life lived free of the fear that plagues me. He is audacious; when he has an idea, he brings it to life. And he audaciously, persistently asked me again and again, "What is your dream?" I floundered at first, but within the spirit of possibility he provided, my brain found room to work on the question. And it found, I found, a potential answer.

I would love to create, or help create, a curriculum for K-12 social science education that develops strong critical thinking skills in students. I would get a double-phd in education and history. (Is such a thing even possible/sane? Maybe one phd would be enough haha.) I would also teach for several years, and go back to the classroom every few years--it's so important to stay connected with the realities of teaching. This project, this kind of work, has the potential to combine my love of people, my passion for education, my fascination with social science, my intellect, and my writing skills to let me do something profound. Also, I have the relatively unique position of having grown up in and really understanding "normal" middle America while also having had access to rigorous education and radical ideas, which could (combined with some luck in the wind) give me the ability to write a curriculum that truly promotes critical thinking while remaining politically palatable to state governments/boards of education.

I'm somewhat afraid to put this idea out in the public sphere because it's very big; perhaps it reads as a pipe-dream, or sounds horribly out of touch with the realities of public education in the U.S. But this blog is about courage, no? So world, here is my dream: I want to make the kind of education I was so so lucky to receive at an elite university accessible to the children, the people, of America. I can actually see myself spending my life in this kind of work; I can look at this future without cowering in terror; I can face it with energy and hope.

Also, I feel so good that I find myself turning to the words of Alanis Morisette, "that I would be good even if I did nothing." These words are not the paradox that they seem.

It is the belief "that I would be good even if I did nothing" that will give me the freedom to embark upon a journey toward such a grand vision. It is not the work that will make me good. I am good; it is my knowledge that I am good no matter what that creates the freedom for me to explore my potential.

Oh joyful, joyful day.