Rejection and Relationships

I wrote the following as an email to one of my closest friends who has been going through a break-up, and on reflection, I’d like to share it with you, my dear readers in the blogosphere, as well. I decided to retain most of the email in its original form, though I changed my friend’s name to Sophie, the protagonist of my first novel and my third and current novel. I did edit some of the letter for privacy as well.

This letter is for you who might have experienced rejection from family, friends, or a romantic partner. It is for you who feel alone or who might not feel as though you experience all the types of relationships you yearn for in life.

Dearest Sophie,

I have spent a lifetime trying to find substitute family-figures. I am so grateful for Andrew, for he was the first person to unconditionally love me and has been there for me for the long haul, but I feel sad when I see others with a close loving family and friends. We’ve moved around every few years, so it’s been hard to make lasting friends and to have a real community. I remember in a previous email I mentioned it gets me down a lot. And then you email me and fill my world with light and love! I’m introverted, so I typically only have one good friend with whom I hang out a lot at a time. And I’m intense with my friendships as well, which might turn people off.

In this new year, I’m coming to some revelations about people and relationships which I’d like to share with you. Although I understand your situation is more severe than mine, as yours was a romantic attachment and my relationship issues are with family/friends, I think these thoughts might help.

1. In Buddhism they say that everything changes (see recent blog entry on change). We can look with loving eyes at the relationships of the past, but realize we and the other people have moved on and evolved and no longer belong in each other’s lives. It’s okay to be sad (I think of the memories in the movie Inside Out turning from joy to sadness) and nostalgic, but we must live in the present and put the past behind us. These people are part of who we are but also a part of our past, they don’t belong in our present except in how they changed and touched us.

2. We must accept rejection, no matter how much it hurts, and treasure those who truly appreciate and accept us for ourselves in all our messy imperfections and flaws. We only really need one or two people in our lives who accept us to feel we share meaningful human connections. Not everyone gets the ideal family, romantic attachments, and friendships maybe in a lifetime, but if you can have one or two people from one or two of these groups, that’s enough. We need to focus on the people we do have in our lives and not the people we don’t have. The ones who reject us might have poor judgement and don’t deserve our love (platonic, familial, or romantic). We can be sad but need to accept the truth that there will always be people we like more than they like us. But there are some people who reciprocate our affection (like you!), and we should concentrate on connecting with these people. Some people don’t have any meaningful relationships, and we need to be grateful for what we have and focus on our gratitude rather than focusing on what we don’t have.

3. I think forgiveness comes in somewhere. We need to forgive ourselves for desiring the company of those who reject us, and we need to forgive the other people for rejecting us.

4. It’s good to exercise or do something to distract oneself from being lonely sometimes. And to get an Alicia Keys Girl on Fire attitude. The best way to fight feeling badly, the best revenge, is success (I learned this from the Hugh Grant movie, Music & Lyrics). In becoming who we are meant to become. In doing great things.

5. And finally, in seeing the sadness wrought by rejection (which I’ve had from family and friends), we learn to appreciate the people who unconditionally love us (people like you and Andrew and some others for me). Maybe we need the sadness to appreciate the joy? Like we need night time to appreciate the day? And even in night there is a sky full of stars…I don’t know what this means, but maybe it’s my way of saying there is a silver lining.

Much love and light and gratitude to have you in my life,

Becca

Advertisements

Resolutions

Holidays. It’s the time when the university is closed, and to enter you need to sign in to security where they might check up on you periodically to make sure you’re not kidnapped. It’s the time when those lacking nearby family might feel the pangs of loneliness. It’s the time when people who do have family in their vicinity might be spiraling toward insane instability from their relatives. It’s the time when you’re supposed to be joyful because that’s the general instruction on the cards you receive either from family and/or your cell phone company. It’s the time when your alma maters ask you for donations before the end of the year, even if you still might have student loans to pay off.

Beckoning in the new year has always been a time about which I became excited because it’s a socially acceptable time to make goal lists otherwise known as New Year’s resolutions. Nothing stopped me from making the lists the rest of the year either, but I felt a special bond around this time to the community of people all making lists about how to improve themselves. Year after year I’d start getting into the New Year’s resolution spirit early, starting weeks before January.

I’ve been very goal oriented my entire life, but somehow, accidentally, this year I forgot to make my resolutions. I think I was too busy to realize the season had crept up. To be honest, I’m not even sure what my goals are any more. I’ve always been driven by goals and deadlines, but reaching these finish lines doesn’t necessarily improve the quality of one’s life, does it? Does achieving your goals make you happy? Do you know what makes you happy? I used to think my goals are what get me out of bed in the morning, but I have recently been revising my thinking. I have tried the same strategy to gain discipline over my various activities time and time again, to enforce minimum time limits of my pursuit of them. Albert Einstein has a noted quote that repeating the same strategy with expectations of different results is, well, not quite sane. I will be gentler and suggest that as scientists we should be able to predict if we repeat the same behavior, our experiment will yield the same outcome.

I’ve approached most of my life like it is an exam. I do my homework. I research and make study plans. I put in the hours. And generally, this approach has led to the realization of my goals. But what I had forgotten along the way included the forgotten lessons I gleaned from J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey. These lessons include having the courage to be common, instead of striving to overachieve, to detach oneself from the rewards of labors (which Salinger quotes from the Bhagavad Gita), and to put in the effort to do what you are meant to do for someone else, not for yourself (I advise reading the book for a more puissant, perhaps, though less sensitive statement of this sentiment).

I don’t really have any goals for the new year. I’ll write and read more blogs, novels, and interviews for Wellesley Underground because reading and writing are lifelong needs I’ve had and how I feel I can contribute perhaps in some small way to my community. It’s not a goal, just something I do. I don’t have a word count plan for each day to read or write. I’ll do my job to the best of my ability because doing science is also part of who I am, and research is fulfilling and advances our understanding. I’ll make an effort to do self-care like music and physical exercise, not with time limits, deadlines, or goals, but just to do some every day for nourishment. Is this a New Year’s resolution? Perhaps. But the difference is that in previous years I imposed rigid guidelines. I generally generate unrealistic lofty plans that leave me berating myself in failure. I think trying less and caring more might be healthier and place me in a better position to give more. I once had a piano teacher tell me that you play piano to give to the piano, the composer, and the audience. I must confess, my mindset often does not revolve around what I can give to others, even through my own self care, but about those fruits of the labor. I guess Wellesley had it right all along, “Non Ministrari sed Ministrare,” not to be ministered to but to minister.

Do I have a New Year’s resolution? I don’t have any set plans for this year. No weight or exercise goals. No word counts or paper quotas. No goals. I just have a general idea that I would like to live less that way and with a more philosophical, nourishing mindset. That I want to do a better job taking care of myself and those in my world instead of pushing myself to achieve.

What will you do this year to take care of yourself and the others in your world?

Not Fine

My essay was originally posted at Wellesley Underground here.

How many times a day do you have encounters with the question, “How are you?”? I believe that our culture is somewhat responsible for the onset of this greeting in stores and cafés. My family’s German exchange students from years ago found the daily postulation by strangers perplexing. I remember dissecting the question with a former teacher in high school, probing its deeper meaning. “How are you” resonates peculiarly with how do you exist or how did you come into being. He then re-framed the query by asking me what state I was in (though this is also odd) as well as quite probably questioning my sanity, no doubt (well, I know he did think me weird, which is quite true).

The question: How are you? It’s a loaded one with the only socially acceptable response as a variant of “fine” or “good.” (Though of course, good indicates morality, rather than mood, but this is still a correct answer to the posed question.)

Sometimes we are not fine. Sometimes our outward appearance, or affect, betrays our hurting innards. Sometimes we might show up to social events or work telling everyone we are fine, though our inner world is a collapsing black hole. I don’t know about you, but I have a misapprehension that transient states, be they fine or not fine in experience, will perpetuate. If I feel sad, anxious, or down, that transient state possesses a permanent quality in my mind. I feel I’ll always exist feeling that way and that I always have. If I feel a sense of peace, that state, too, takes up residence in my mind as being lasting, leading to a seismic shock when it ends.

The truth is that every experience and everything else in the universe is impermanent, including life itself. Nothing persists indefinitely. Not stars. Not the state of the universe. Even space-time changes. Nothing is permanent. We can obtain peace and comfort that even suffering is ephemeral. We all dwell in a state and cosmos of flux. So if you’re not fine today, remember that this, too, will likely change. Everything and everyone evolves, and you just have to keep going because tomorrow your mood might improve. Seize those giddy moments when they befall, even if they are fleeting, because life is worthwhile even for just these brief periods of lightness.

If you are feeling not fine, I dare you to confide in someone and be vulnerable yet open to comfort and care. Someone once told me that the remedy for low moods is activity, physical activity, and social connectedness. The silver lining to suffering is the discovery of the love that is proffered if you strive to connect with others. Other positive side effects of pain include growth and self discovery. Edvard Munch and Sylvia Plath are just two examples of artists who leveraged their mental illness into creative works. I know, it’s poor consolation when you feel detached from the mood you believe you can aspire to experience or what you feel like you should or could achieve. Or when life feels unbearable, like gravity is tearing you apart by tidal forces or a dark well is slowly dragging you into its depths. But if you connect to a friend, therapist, or family member, you might develop a close relationship and find beauty that otherwise wouldn’t have been accessible. It’s the side trips in life, the ones off the main route, that often offer us the most poetic scenery. Virginia Woolf’s On Being Ill broaches the subject of what you miss in life when you are well. If your well-being is cracked, it might open you to slowing down your life, to time dilating, and to deliberating in the moments that don’t feel like good fortune but possess qualities you might otherwise have passed by without observing.

Your journey is yours alone, unique and special. There is nothing to do but to accept your journey and also remember that you have some degree of power over it, power to change the status quo or to improve the quality of your experience. If you’re not fine, fight your best fight to transform those parts of your experience over which you have the capacity to modify and let it lead you to who you are destined to be. Even if it’s not how you thought you would look like before. We imagine who we will be as children, how our lives will appear as adults. These dreams never factor in illness, tragedy, and other inevitable life events. So we have to adapt to mold ourselves to unforeseen circumstances and emotional states. And along this journey we might find some strength, comfort from others, and some beauty to which we might otherwise have been blind.

How are you? If your answer is “not fine,” I dare you to extend your heart to seek comfort in another’s compassion and to remember that nothing, even feeling badly, prevails forever. Life is all too flickering anyway, a brief candle as Shakespeare alluded, so you might as well embrace it for what it is in all its colorful nuances and emotional landscapes.

Why will you get up tomorrow?

Why do you wake up each morning? What drives you to climb out of bed every day? The answer will vary depending on your socio-economic background, country of residence, physical and mental state, and everything else I have forgotten. I’ve been asking myself these questions for decades. Usually I feel driven to complete some project, dream chaser that I am. Sometimes I am driven by some motivation just to survive or other times in the past I just didn’t get out of bed. However, eventually some drive, not necessarily related to caffeine, will kick in. Caffeine, however, is a huge motivator to get out of bed!

At some point at an early age I felt motivated to make a contribution to science. I recorded that I aspired to be a “quantum mechanic” or an astrophysicist when I was about ten years old. This dream motivated me for decades, inspiring me to do the whole spiel of a BA in astrophysics from Wellesley College, MS in string theory at UCLA, and PhD in theoretical cosmology at McGill University. I wrote papers along the way and paved the way to consummate all my dreams when the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics nominated me as a National Fellow. The next logical step would be to gain teaching experience and land a tenure track faculty position.

But dreams have a funny way about them. Achieving them doesn’t necessarily lead to peace or happiness nor does the strife of the process of pursuing them. I tried postdocing for two and a half years and contract teaching last semester for two courses in preparation for fulfilling my lifelong dream of becoming a professor.

Honestly, I didn’t think I would survive.

Let’s talk about the teaching. Five hours of lecturing a week doesn’t sound overwhelming until you factor in the 80 pages of hand-written and typed presentation material that needed preparation each week. Performing administrative duties, meeting with students, writing and solving two weekly homework problem sets, writing and grading exams, compiling grades, making course web page updates and posting material, and answering emails all compounded to consume my waking hours.

Plus I forgot I suffer from performance anxiety and teaching new lectures in front of an audience of nearly 50 students three times a week for just one of my courses was a bit of a challenge. I wouldn’t say it was as bad as free falling into a Dante book, but it was a source of consternation. Before my first day of teaching I watched inspiring movies about teachers who made a difference in the lives of their students. The one time I tried to deliver an inspiring speech to my students to fight like warriors (a phrase a friend of mine coined ironically to describe his pursuit of a faculty position) to make their dreams come true and learn math, I sounded more like a certain cartoon mouse trying to inspire an army rather than Alexander the Great or a Tolkien hero.

So I went to my GP who prescribed some things including two hours of piano practice a day and Scriabin. Naturally, with nearly ten plus hours of course work to do a day, I neglected the piano.  On the other hand, the Scriabin did help a modicum.

I learned a lot in the process. There is probably some topological description of how lifelong dreams can turn inside out and upside down, even just temporarily, which for me happened in these last three odd post-student years. And now I am reevaluating my purpose and place, insignificant though it is, in the universe. I still feel the urge to contribute to science and to teach, but in a less frenetic way.

I believe at Harvard researchers are studying happiness, but it doesn’t take much scientific examination to see that passing my Grade 5 voice exam with honors despite some unique challenges and the process of singing and playing piano are an offering of mental peace to me. Whatever I do professionally, I need to follow my doctor’s orders and incorporate making music into my daily life.

I am a dream chaser. The next goal for me is to master my Grade 8 piano and Grade 7 voice practical and the theory exams while keeping my passion for theoretical physics and mathematics alive. My next dream also includes sculpting with words, documenting my experiences, and creating new journeys in my mind through language. Maybe someday I will be able to rally an army of students to fall in love with mathematics and physics as much as I have fallen in love with them, but for the time being I hope to make new memories of new dreams of the musical and literary variety. In the rambling scribbles of this blog, I hope to analyze dreams, the preparation needed to complete music exams, and make side-trips along the way through the corridors of thoughts and through cosmic and mathematical harmonies. So that answers the question of what will get me out of bed tomorrow (plus a giant latte in my UCLA mug).

Why will you get up tomorrow?