Working against the original impulse

I sensed that I was fighting against myself because once the hate and anger and self-loathing went away, I’d be forced to confront the raw, unedited me. I was afraid. What if I didn’t like her? What if other people didn’t like her? Without hate and anger, would there just be pain?

Well, yes. There was some pain. Sometimes there still is as I discover another layer I need to peel back or a wall I need to tear down. When you’ve been constructing a fortress around yourself for almost two decades, it’s not coming down in a couple months. You can’t even begin to see every type of material or clever trick you used to fortify yourself. At least not in the beginning.

Cheryl Strayed writes, “It was enough to trust that what I’d done was true.”

Can you do this for yourself? Can you trust that what you’ve done has been true and leave it at that? Can you stop fighting against yourself, working against yourself, and start learning to accept?

One war I have been waging against myself is why study literature in a world that is screaming at us to do things quickly and efficiently with obviously useful ends (nevermind the means). There’s more and more talk these days about understanding the human experience–let’s all learn how to practice compassion and empathy!–but still, current events make it difficult to trust that understanding our shared humanity is a worthy pursuit.

My big war against myself was basically why have you chosen to devote so many years of your life that something that no one cares about, that serves no immediate, practical end?

To stop fighting against this path I’ve been on, I had to go back to my original impulse. I’ve always been a voracious reader and also a quiet observer of humans. If you know me, you know I am not naturally gregarious, especially in a roomful of strangers. But I like to watch and listen. I like to process and understand. And I have always turned to literature as a surefire way to understand myself and my relations with others.

Doesn’t it make sense that I would want to find a way to pursue my questions with structural and financial support?

But I got lost along the way. I got tripped up in three big ways:

  1. I started listening to and believing the voices around me that questioned the value of spending nearly a decade on a graduate degree in literature. Aren’t there more pressing, practical things you can do? Isn’t that a little self-indulgent? What are you going to do with that? So the pursuit became a means instead of an end.
  2. Which leads to #2: I became kind of obsessed with the end. Naturally, linearly, one with a PhD in English would become an English professor. I started to assume this to be true for myself. Then I started to believe it was what I wanted, what was best for me and my values and my strengths and my ambitions. And a gaping disconnect started to grow inside me.
  3. Speaking of gaping disconnects, I also started worry about what I should be studying. Was I doing the “right” thing? Was my course of study popular or respectable? I let these worries lead me far afield of my original impulse.

Notice how all three ways I got tripped up were because I started listening to and believing the narratives around me. I stopped trusting what had been original and natural to the decision to go down this road in the first place.

Here’s how I had to address each digression:

  1. I had big questions and a graduate program in literature was the best way for me to answer them. Me. The best way for me. Other people may have chosen other ways to answer their questions. Maybe other people just wanted to live a life of clear and direct answers. But I am me, not other people.
  2. My original impulse didn’t necessarily know or care what happened after the program. I couldn’t think that far ahead. It was cognitively impossible. Ten years in the future? I intuitively understood I couldn’t imagine what might happen. Who knows what would happen to me in school, what influences would go to work on me, who I would meet, which way the damn wind would blow me?
  3. Finally, I read literature to understand people. Myself. My relations with others. Relationships in general. Shouldn’t my course of study be firmly rooted in these types of questions, rather than trends in the field?

Once I found a way back to my original impulse and trusted that everything I’ve done so far has been true, I stopped fighting against myself.

It’s taken me almost five years to remember why I wanted to do this in the first place. But I did. I wanted to study literature unapologetically, with relish. I wanted time and space to wrestle with questions I’ve had my whole life. Some might see it as indulgent and selfish, but to me, it originally felt like the only way to stay sane, to be able to look back on my life and not say, What if.

Sometimes, telling someone who lives and works practically that I’m working on an English PhD feels like saying I decided to jump off a cliff with no parachute. But the original impulse was to trust and now I have found my way back there.

I’m not going to be apologetic and timid anymore. Because I’m not fighting against myself anymore.

My favorite thing about the humanities is that we don’t propose to have all the answers. We don’t rest on certainty. We ask lots of questions and we find humanity in the messy, gray areas. This is what it is to be human most days: we must wrestle with the fact that we don’t have all the answers and there is rarely certainty in our lives. We can’t know what’s going to happen in the future five seconds from now. We can predict, but we can’t know. Learning to trust and accept is a difficult part of our journey.

I remember I wanted to do this to explore and have an adventure. I remember it took courage to say yes to this. I remember I once didn’t worry how it would end because it was an end in itself. And suddenly I feel like I am exactly where I am supposed to be.

Yes, some days–some weeks–are extremely difficult, frustrating, maddening. And yes, there’s much to be desired in the way graduate programs operate. But I am able to see the big picture again. I am even able to understand how my coaching program fits in with it all. There’s a sense of wholeness and integration that wasn’t there before when I was listening to everyone except myself.

I proposed my new course of study, one that’s infinitely more aligned with my original impulse, to my advisor last week. His response was enthusiastic approval. Of course, I first had to give myself enthusiastic approval.

Are you working against yourself? Fighting against yourself? In what areas do you feel a disconnect? Where have you wandered from your original impulse? If you can find your way back to it and trust, especially trust that what you have done is true, how will that give you more ease and comfort? How will it give you a sense of wholeness and integration that you might be missing right now?

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