A partial list of lessons and ongoing work:
1. Like most people I know, I was socialized into a competitive meritocracy. We are told we must make something of ourselves, make an impact, be successful. It’s been an endless race of competition, pressure, and achievement. There’s a million little ways to demonstrate your superiority, from your gestures to your conversations to your dress–all meant to say I’m a little bit “smarter, hipper, more accomplished, sophisticated, famous, plugged-in, and fashion-forward” than the people around me. So we do everything with shrewdness. We manage our time and our emotional commitments. Everything seems to be done with a mindset of professional benefits. We suffer from FOMO, not just of social events or workplace promotion, but also of the cultural zeitgeist, another way of demonstrating with-itness. This lifestyle encouraged me to find out how to do things but not why. I knew how to get people to like me and accord me status, but ultimately, I felt empty.
2. I decided I wanted to stop seeking happiness as an end and the version of success I unquestioningly accepted as my own. I wanted to find out how to live for purpose and from values. I know now that my spiritual and moral needs cannot be solved through status and material things.
3. I wanted to come to terms with my flaws. But I also wanted to acknowledge my strengths. My low self-regard prevented both. Here, pride was my greatest vice, one I am just now beginning to understand. Pride is my blindspot. It’s what has kept me obsessed with certainty. Pride is what closes off vulnerability before those I love, so when I hurt, I’m too proud to say I hurt, like relationships are some kind of power struggle and only the silent sufferers win. Pride closes off growth. In all areas.
4. My struggles against my weaknesses give meaning to my life, and I can struggle with a cheerful spirit. Defeating my weaknesses begins with quieting my ego. Only in the stillness and quiet can I contend with the ups and downs of life. I can take constructive criticism because the criticism isn’t an attack on selfhood. It’s someone further along saying, here, let me show you the way. I found the capacity for reverence and admiration in this quiet. (If you’re looking for a list of the weaknesses I’m grappling with, that’ll have to be its own entry. But a cheerful spirit, my friends.)
5. Find work that is intrinsically compelling. If you only work to satisfy yourself, you’ll forever chase ambition. If you only work for others, you’ll constantly wonder if they appreciate you. Focusing on being excellent at what’s intrinsically compelling for you leads to serving both self and community.
6. Joy often comes from interdependence with others, something I am still learning how to do. I said to my therapist a few weeks ago, “I’m not really sure I know how to do interpersonal relationships.” I have closed myself off behind walls of protection so entrenched the excavation may take years. Maybe it’s the work of a lifetime. That doesn’t feel like a burden to me anymore.
7. But I have also found joy in a “freely chosen obedience to people, ideas, and commitments greater than” me. The key word is “freely.” Once I accepted that the purpose of the long years of work in this degree is to train me to be a researcher, I was able to relax into the process and feel less strained by the growing pains. And I was able to relax into my slow version of that process. I realized that I did freely choose this path, but I had to remember why and then get back on it on my own terms.
Quotes from this book.