“Fear and work weren’t all bad, as companions went. They were both better than loneliness” – Naomi Novik in ‘Uprooted’

Things have progressed rapidly in the last few months. All of a sudden I am editing an actual manuscript of my doctoral thesis rather than just drafts of my individual chapters. But this advancement comes with a cost. The pressure is building up, and every deadline requires more work, more attention, and affords less time to breathe in between. After all, the end is in sight – not just because there is a manuscript, but because there is a finite lifespan on my contract at the university. So the clock is ticking, and though I have a clear idea about what needs to be done between now and the end of the year, I am not at all more confident or relaxed because of it.

Fear has been a constant lately. I am as afraid of finishing my thesis as I am of not finishing it. Because once it’s finished, then what? I’ve been contemplating this for months now and do not feel like I am any closer to an answer. What type of work would I want to do? What can I do? What are my options? I simply don’t know. And maybe I’m not supposed to know, but I do have a mortgage, a car, and two wonderful dogs that depend on me. Besides, I know myself well enough to know that I won’t handle unemployment well. Working has always been my one constant. No matter what mood I was in, there was always work, and to be sure there were moments that I couldn’t function properly, but I was at least always able to make up for it. I am on time with my thesis because I have prioritised work above almost everything else (certainly above myself) and it has been that option – to disregard myself in favour of work – which allowed me to maintain a certain constancy on a professional level. If that falls away, what purpose will I have? What constancy?

Though I cannot speak for others, I presume it is only a natural fear. We are all afraid of major life changes, and we should be. They are major life changes for a reason. Their value is enhanced in part because of the uncertainty and fear that comes with them. Our ability to transcend that fear, to deal with major changes despite it, gives us a sense of power and control. You might have been afraid to move to a new city, start a new job, move in with someone, or something along these lines, but in the end, such experiences have the tremendous potential to empower you as a person. I know that my current fear is primarily based on the fact that, even though I’m almost 29 years old, I’ve never functioned in the ‘real world’ before. I know academia, I know the university, and I know I don’t want to stay here because it doesn’t make me happy. I can see the world in which other people operate, a world which doesn’t require quite as much explanation as to what it is you actually do on a daily basis, but I have no idea how I go about introducing myself to it. And facing a whole world of options and people, opportunities and potential rejections, new directions and feeling lost because of them, is terrifying.

There are moments, of course, that I feel like everything will be okay. After all, when was the last time I was ever unemployed? Never. And when was the last time I worked more than one job at a time? This year. So, past data suggests that I will be okay in the future. It helps that I don’t mind what kind of work I do for as long as I pay the bills, but ‘any job’ is more of a last resort than what I have in mind for my future. It’s about time I start building up an actual career. I did not go through all this trouble, all this blood, sweat, and many, many, many  tears only to end up flipping burgers somewhere. I want more for myself. But when I ask myself the question ‘what do you want?’ the answer is invariably ‘I have no idea.’ And so time passes away, all whilst I work as diligently as possible on my thesis because heaven forbid it isn’t done on time.

Since this new deadline-to-deadline work thing has kicked in, I haven’t had much of a chance to rest and restore my energy reserves. Arguably, I haven’t had a chance to do so since I was twelve, but it has become worse recently. I’d been drowning and had barely broken the surface before I was being pulled under again. My mood responds accordingly. I have been more depressed than usual, and any passion I once felt for my work has evaporated. In fact, it is often the case that thinking about working on my thesis makes me break out into a cold sweat, has my hands and fingers tremble, and my mind run wild in a sudden panic. However, I am still blissfully denying a thesis-burnout. I can’t afford to have one right now. And so every day, I drag myself to my laptop, sit down, open whatever section I’m working on, and continue. Are there moments I burst into tears? Yes. Is there an edge of resentment when I look at all the feedback on my work even though I know I really appreciate it and that it is only intended to help me improve? Yes. I had hoped I could escape this part of the process – the whole ‘I hate it, make it go away’ part – but it seems like at least in this, I follow the PhD pattern. I’ve been told this is normal.
Normal does kind of suck.

To be honest, I’m not sure how everything will work out in the end. I am used to the presence of a steely resolve in me, the kind that makes me finish something on time simply because I said I would, but it has wholly deserted me now. There is still a dutifulness in me which keeps me going, a desire to have it finished and done with, but is that truly enough to keep me going as my sparse energy reserve is running out? I have come to depend on the strength that comes from passion, the power that comes from an obsessive need to do what I agreed to, and now I find myself with little of both. I am at that point where I just don’t care that much anymore. Lucky for me, my thesis is in its final stages. Now it just feels like either I will hold out long enough to finish it, or it will finish me.

***

Mheer, Limburg, The Netherlands.

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“Ask nature: she will tell you that she made both day and night” – Seneca in ‘Letter III of Letters from a Stoic’

Alrighty then. It’s been a good long while since I wrote my last blog post – sorry about that. The last weeks have been challenging, both personally and professionally, and though I did think about writing, I couldn’t quite bring myself to do it. It’s difficult to write about something when you’re still in the middle of it, when it’s not yet clear where you’re heading or what to do about the ‘mess’ you feel overwhelmed by. And yes, it’s been a bit of a mess since my return from Washington D.C., but with time comes perspective and though I feel like I am as much of a mess as ever, there is more space to talk about it, more room to reflect.

The good news is that I have all my chapters for my dissertation, and two of them have already been reworked into second versions, so I’m well on my way to put together an actual manuscript. I like this part. Though sometimes I roll my eyes at things I wrote a couple of years ago, it is also kind of fun to see how far I’ve come. The difference between my ‘thinking’ 3 years ago and my thinking today is, eh, let’s say ‘noticeable.’ So even though I’ve consistently felt like I was just kind of plodding along but not really getting any better or getting anything done, evidently I picked some stuff up along the way. I have 7 months left to complete the whole thing and submit it, and the best part is I actually do have all of those 7 months: I have no more conferences, and only one peer-reviewed article to edit. So with the time I have left over I can either write more articles, or I can invest in future plans…

…because the future is becoming a bit more real, and a lot more scary. I’m not sure yet what I’m going to do after my PhD. Fortunately, my university has offered career counselling so I have my first appointment next week to discuss what my options are. In the time I have left between now and the end of my contract I might still do some additional training to ensure a smooth transition from one job into the next. But I don’t like this uncertainty even though it’s still months away. What I especially don’t like is the fact that, in truth, I don’t even really know what I can do with a doctorate in Humanities. Sure, my resume includes a long list of other things as well (benefits of taking the non-traditional vocational education route to university) but those are not things I want to do (like retail, animal care, or teaching at secondary school level). So if anyone has any tips as for what may be a good option for me: I am all ears. I have time to get the appropriate training and I’ve been known to work hard and be quite intelligent… just saying…

And then there’s the personal stuff which is the main reason for my reluctance to write. My anxieties have been overly present and somewhat difficult to manage for me. Overall I am okay, at least, I’ve felt much much worse in the past and now more than ever I understand why I feel what I feel. Understanding why helps – it does – but it can also be frustrating. This knowledge doesn’t do anything, I still feel it, and actually, sometimes, understanding it only makes it worse. It can be depressing to know that the hurt you feel has been systematically caused by significant people throughout your life to such a degree that it affects your daily life in the present. It can be frustrating to know that the justified anger you feel because of things people have done to you is just there and that the people responsible are not bothered by it. It can be confusing to know that the sadness you feel has a right to be there, that it is normal to feel sad about everything that’s happened, but at the same time to want to be above that, to want to eradicate it because feeling that sadness feels like the person who caused it won. It’s irrational – you are not less strong for being affected by someone that you cared about deeply. If anything, it shows the strength of your character because you dared to care and you dared to open yourself up to someone else.
And yes, it is unfair and unjust and just bloody cruel for someone to take that care and vulnerability and crush it. It is deeply hurtful and angering that you have to endure that, that the words spoken by someone else carry that much power because those were all the words you feared most to hear – and that person knew it. That person knew because you were open and showed a side of yourself you hardly ever show anyone. Your trust and faith in them is why it cuts so deeply and it’s probably why you may even feel angry with yourself. After all, you put your trust and faith in them, and if only you hadn’t done that… nothing bad would’ve happened, right?

Now, I’m not one to preach the everlasting optimism that I admire in other people. My glass is inherently half-empty, and my natural inclination is to argue that it’s more likely to stay that way than it is to become full again. But even I know this: understanding why you feel what you feel is a good thing, not because of the potentially depressing, frustrating, or confusing side-effects, but because by understanding why you feel hurt, or angry, or sad, you learn so much more about yourself and what matters to you as a person. You wouldn’t be angry at someone betraying your trust if you gave it out easily and with little meaning behind it. You wouldn’t feel hurt by someone unless you were brave enough to show vulnerability which is in itself incredibly powerful – even when it doesn’t feel like it. And you wouldn’t be sad if you hadn’t genuinely cared. Of course I rather not be affected by something bad someone else did to me, and I am well aware that it will take a good long time before I can trust and care again. But that is kind of the point: the aim is to genuinely trust and genuinely care again, despite the risks and despite the bad experiences. Maybe not everyone deserves to be trusted and cared about, but can you really be yourself if you didn’t give them the best of you? They may not have valued it, and the pain it has caused sucks, but that doesn’t mean that there are no people who do value it, and who not only value it but find it important to offer you the same.

So, understanding isn’t great. It doesn’t make the feelings go away, it even makes them more tangible, more raw, and almost impossible to ignore. But it’s a great tool to get to know yourself. And this is why I didn’t write for a while. I was too caught up in the process, I couldn’t step back and understand. I’m not good at it all the time, but today the picture seems a little clearer. It’s like writing my PhD – now I can look back to the beginning and note the monumental changes I’ve made in my ability to think, analyse, structure, etc. But all throughout these past 3 1/2 years, I felt like I wasn’t going anywhere at all. Except that I did.

***

Great Smoky Mountains (April 2019)
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“The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.” – William Shakespeare in ‘As you like it’

Today’s blog is a little bit special as I am writing it in the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Reading Room. And then you might ask ‘But aren’t you supposed to be working?’ and I would answer, well, yes. But an essential part of work is taking a break and so this is mine: a moment away from the (already) endless card catalogs. I love working in places like these, the only downside being that it’s always cold – at least to me. I know a steady temperature is necessary, but does the steady temperature have to be freezing?

All last week I was on a road trip through rural Virginia, Tennessee, and North Carolina. I saw a great many forests, state parks and mountains, and now that I am in Washington DC, it takes some getting used to the city again. I liked the quiet. I liked the endless nature, the hiking, the long, long roads, and even the fact that it’s bear season and that the only radio stations readily available were Country music or Jesus preachers channels could not spoil the fun. Though proper vegetables are hard to come by and sugar is added to everything – even stevia is added to bread – I have a weakness for American pancakes and bacon and those are available in spades.

We covered 1957 kilometers, and in the time it took to do so, I had a lot of time to think. It was high time I got some things into perspective for myself anyway, and now I seemed to finally have the time and space to do so. Recent experiences taught me that even though giving everything in terms of love, care, and understanding, it doesn’t mean that it will be answered in kind, that it may actually be disregarded quite callously, and that I could’ve been spared a lot of pain if the other had taken one hard look in the mirror. For months, I was in the same situation, a repetitive and painful cycle, and despite seeing the hurt that was inflicted by him, it took a long, long time to finally do some soul-searching. When he did, though, it took him all but two days. My first response was to blame myself, of course, when it was finally decided that this wasn’t going to work out, but to be fair, I am not having such a tough time rightfully placing the responsibility of this particular part outside of myself. I am okay with how things are, actually quite happy with it. I wasn’t being appreciated and it made me insecure. I didn’t feel seen, heard, cared for, or like I mattered, and now I do. For too long I gave too much and it feels like a burden has been lifted. There is power in anger, and I am harnessing it. Like I said, perspective. I am better off now, and I can say this with true conviction. I can be happier now, because I am free to push myself to be my best self rather than dividing that energy between myself and someone who took it for granted. It was a learning curve – a steep one – but it will prove invaluable for the future.

In terms of work, perspective matters too. I finished editing one chapter for the dissertation, only three more to go, and then to the introduction and conclusion. I still have enough time, and I have long since decided that I don’t need it to be excellent – I just need it to be done. I will do what I can to make it good, but as long as it’ll stand before a committee, it’ll do. I am no longer panicking, and slooowly I am moving away from the idea that I am simply not ‘good enough’ to finish this thing. The fear that my contract will run out before it’s done is still there, but the impact becomes less and less. Perspective changes perception. For example, this grand old library I’m currently working in, decorated with all its fine art, stained windows, high arches, and old, dark wood, offers wisdom and inspiration. But at the end of the day, it’s just a building with books, tables that are slightly too high for me, and chairs that for all their decadence are not very comfortable. Besides, there’s the never-ending cold. I will enjoy my time here, partly because during my breaks I will roam the halls of the outwardly-unassuming building, and partly because there’s material here that’s one of a kind. And above all, I will keep working on that perspective, not because it’s always fun, but it’ll be the most productive thing for any future course.

***

Douthat State Park, 6 April 2019

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“I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else I knew as well” – Henry David Thoreau in ‘Walden’

I often have to remind myself that the changes I make in my life are about me. They’re about me as a person, about me as a friend, me as a lover, and me as part of something bigger – be it a work or family structure. Even more often I have to remind myself that it is okay. I am allowed to make changes to become a healthier and happier person. I have to learn to accept changes I had no control over, too, and accept that those people likely made the choices they made for the same reason. I need to accept that, despite my best effort to be part of the solution, to them I might have been part of what obstructed their path to happiness. Naturally, the thought that I might have taken that role in the life of someone I care about hurts. But, if there’s no other way to help them achieve a better, more balanced life than by my disappearing from it altogether, that’s acceptable to me. My main focus has been acceptance. Acceptance of who I am and especially of the factors that contributed to making me this way. Acceptance of the good in me because it deserves to be there too. Acceptance of my challenges, shortcomings, weaknesses, flaws, and failures. I struggle to accept that people who love me will sometimes deny giving me a place in their lives, no matter the consequences for me or them. Overall, I am not a fan of Life.
That, too, is okay.
I have had some misfortune and bad luck that shaped my extremely subjective opinion on it. I fell in love with someone who (eventually) confirmed all the worst I believed about myself. I love him still, and miss him, too. He taught me a lot. For all the bad stuff that’s happened, I’d like to remember the good as I hope to find it again in the future. I remember the first moment we saw each other and how instantaneous our chemistry was. How there was a blissful time of few complications, of simple affection and togetherness. How he made me laugh, how when I was with him my busy and loud mind would just stop and be quiet. I loved his kindness, generosity, effort, care, warmth, affection, and his teasing and playfulness. I loved how he made me take myself less seriously and how he accepted everything about me, would touch my scars, telling me not to hide them because they showed my strength, not my weakness. Though in the end, I had to protect myself, had to accept my own value, these are the things I do not want to forget. Creating space is not about eradicating memories, and it’s not about ignoring the bad or the good. But the bad always seems more predominant, more important. Creating space is so much easier when you feed only off of that negativity. Yet, there is power in remembering the good, in giving those memories the space they deserve, too. They will serve as a reminder of why you invested so much, and they will also remind you to invest once again when the opportunity presents itself.  The changes I made are about me. They removed me from a toxic environment. But I will remember the good because those are the things I want for myself in the future.
I do not regret that.
And that, too, is okay.

***

Hiking in the Ardennes, 2018.

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“Though my preferred ways are not happening, I won’t underestimate who I am capable of becoming” – Benjamin Clementine ‘London’

The difficulty of creating space cannot be overrated, as I am sure you have experienced at some point. Creating space in your own life is tough enough – space for things that are important to you, space for people that matter, space for yourself and your needs – and when it comes to being given space in other people’s lives, you’re powerless altogether. And yet, space is fundamental. Like all things in life that matter, it isn’t easy, there are consequences to claiming space and at first it’s mostly trusting that it’ll work out in the end.
It’s that time of ‘trusting’ that is the most challenging part: it’s when you have realised that space is missing in your life perhaps because it is taken up by someone, maybe because it is taken up by other activities, and so the next step is to create that space by either diminishing or completely removing that person or activity.

That might sound a little harsh. ‘Removing’ a person from your life, isn’t that selfish? Cruel? Unfair? This is what makes it difficult because intuition will likely answer ‘yes,’ ‘maybe,’ and ‘yes,’ but if you need that space to become happy, or to have room for other people who are making you happier, then the answers are ‘no,’ ‘no,’ and ‘no.’ You have every right to want to be happy, to be happy, and even if you want to be happy with someone and recognise the potential of becoming happy with him/her, if it turns out you’re not… then something has to change. And as noted before: you have no control over someone else’s decisions, nor over the space you are given in their lives. So if you aren’t given the space you need in their life, but they take up a chunk of space in yours… it’s probably best to re-evaluate.

By now it’s kind of obvious what I’ve been doing this past week. I created space in my life because I wasn’t being given space in theirs. It was scary and tough, sad and infuriating, and definitely not something I want to do often… but it’s also such a relief. It’s freedom. I do feel like I have options now, like my energy, love, care, and compassion isn’t being thrown into an endless well without any of it returning to me at some point and in some way. It is lonesome – there is an emptiness now as well – but I don’t think I’ve ever done anything like this for myself. I don’t think I have ever valued myself enough to claim my space – to no longer accept invisibility. I never would’ve believed there was going to be a day when I decided that I matter as much as I think other people do, nor did I believe I had any right to think it is not okay to be treated like I don’t deserve space, emotionally or physically, in the life of someone who claims to care about me. I learned that it isn’t acceptable for someone to inspire hope but ultimately provide disappointment on a regular basis. It’s crushing and disheartening, and I don’t need others to crush and dishearten me, if it must be done, I can do it perfectly well on my own.

All I can say now is that if you’re doubting whether or not to (re)claim space in your life: you probably should. It will free you up for new adventures. Though I must also say, and I speak from experience, that it is a delicate subject. The easiest way to do it is by cutting someone from your life immediately, no contact, no explanations, just essentially ghost that person. But I find that hurtful, harmful, and extremely disrespectful to the other person. Besides, it says something about yourself that is none too flattering because avoiding the confrontation purely for your own ease comes awfully close to cowardice. No one says claiming your space is easy, nor does it have to be rigorously implemented in such a way that you crush the other completely. It’s shitty either way, but I would recommend doing what needs to be done in as respectful and clear a manner as possible and only turn to extremer measures if there’s no other option. And if you want to create space for someone in your life but something is holding you back… well it’s usually related to fear, the fear of rejection, or the fear of what other people in your life might think about who you want to give space to. The same concept holds true though: would this person add to my happiness? And if so, does anyone have the right to deny you offering space to that person? Because if that’s what’s happening, you are not in control of your life – they are.
But for real though: do what needs to be done to gain control in your life, to allocate your space to those who treat you well and who add to your happiness. Everyone deserves that, even the people who cause you pain. They just don’t get to use you for their benefit whilst you are left drained, isolated, and invisible on the sidelines, hoping someday they might indeed make you happier because you know that potential is there.

***

Scotland 2017.

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“I am not afraid of the world, for I can say that my conscience is clear, and I have nothing to be ashamed of” – Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky in ‘Letters August 13th, 1880’

With my final chapter handed in to my supervisor and the rewriting of ‘Chapter 1’ (i.e. not the first I wrote but the first in the manuscript) well on its way, I am starting to see the finish line of my PhD. This is absolutely terrifying.
Though I still have time (10 1/2 months to be exact), I find myself thinking more often about what will happen next. Even without a contract, the mortgage needs to be paid and both the dogs and myself need to eat. And of course, there’s the ever-knawing fear that I will still not be able to finish on time. I guess this last fear is the one that makes both the least and the most sense: on the one hand, I have a ridiculous amount of time to rewrite and edit in comparison to most PhDs. On the other hand, whether or not I ‘finish’ is not entirely up to me. I could be done in June, but if my supervisor and promotor aren’t on board, I cannot submit the thesis anyway. I have no reason to believe they won’t work with me, after all it’s in everyone’s interest that I get this thing done and out the door, and yet… not having such a big part of this process completely outside of my control is challenging.

Now, considering how well my work is progressing, it’s easy to assume I am progressing just as smoothly and speedily in everyday life. I’m not. Or, at least, I don’t see it that way. About a month ago I began adhering to an actual schedule, with, like, proper blocks set up for sleeping, working, eating, and sports. It’s still weird to me and I cannot wholeheartedly appreciate the 6 a.m. daily alarm. Limiting my working hours has also proven to be quite difficult though evidently the restrictions are paying off as I am now able to work productively for more hours a week than I did before (and by productively I do mean the ‘academic’ productively, i.e. writing/editing, because that’s all the production that counts, right?) Even more challenging is allowing extinuating circumstances. For example, I am ill. It happens, but it also means I can’t follow my schedule since that includes running or horseback riding, and I can barely walk the stairs before my lungs are exploding (#pneumonia). I even took time off work – I let my supervisor know I’m ill and everything. Very not-me, but apparently the mature, wise, and right thing to do. Still makes me feel like I am wasting time though. I still feel the guilt for ‘forsaking’ the schedule, for not pulling my weight, for cancelling on planned activities. So this schedule is good for me in more ways than one: I also have to accept that I am human and sometimes humans get ill and sometimes that means a temporary suspension of the planned activites. This does not mean I’m failing, or that it’s all pointless, useless, hopeless, or whatever ‘-less’ you want to add. And as I write this down in such confident terms, do remember I am repeating this to myself over and over in the hopes it’ll sink in and I will believe it.

There’s still plenty of loneliness in my life. In a sense I’m finding peace with it, not because I am okay with the feeling, but because I am okay that the alternative would be betraying my own norms and values so as to keep certain people in my life. I have grown in knowing what I need, what I want, and why it’s okay to ask for it. I have accepted that despite having been taught from a young age that it’s not okay to ‘claim space’ in the world, it actually is okay to do exactly that – particularly when it comes down to people who claim to care about you. It should not be a struggle for someone to make room for me, in part because I know I give if not equal than more in return for it, and in part because I know I don’t ask for much. For too long I have accepted that my ‘requests’ for being seen, for being given someone’s precious time, for wanting to spend time with someone, are too much to ask. But as friends, isn’t the point kind of to make time for each other? Maybe not every day, or even every week, or month, but every once in a while shouldn’t be too difficult. I have friends I don’t speak to often, but then once we’re like “hey let’s meet up” we pick a date that works (be it tomorrow, or three months from now) and we block that date in our dayplanners and go do something fun because we both enjoy each other’s company despite our busy, chaotic lives. But when I ask for that – someting this simple, this normal in social contact – and it inevitably turns into my having to hope the other person has a scrap of time left over, or the first response indicates it’s too much of a hassle… then it’s not a good place for me to be in. Recently, I have been working hard to recognise toxic relationships, and I think the hard work is showing – though the results suck. It’s better, however, to be on my own, alone, and lonely but open, ready, and willing to engage in new, meaningful social contacts, than it is to give up everything I am and need for any type of relationship with people. What I want is quite simple: to be a good friend. What I need is for someone to invest (as close as possible to) equally in our friendship. Before, it was mostly me fulfilling the needs of others because, yes, that makes me happy – it’s what I consider being a good friend. So that part of me is not going to change. But my expectations for  what I might ask for or receive in return have changed. At the very least, I want someone who is able and willing to get out a dayplanner, pick a date, and go do something fun because we both enjoy it.

All in all, a lot of things are still in motion and most of them are good. Work = good. Personal life = not so much. And that’s exactly why progress can also kind of suck: I know I am doing the right thing. But rounding things up, closing things off, and moving on isn’t a fun thing to do – you remember all the investments already made, the potential now being wasted. Then again, I do think at some point, it will be worth it. Closing the door on the pain is step one, and undoubtedly it will sometimes be opened up again, but without this step, there’s no hope for new beginnings. And to be completely honest – though I feel like a total failure for the current state of my ‘close-friends-circle,’ I am excited for the future, curious to see which people will cross my path, and to give those people the best I can give of myself.

***

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“I got the same old shoes with a new attitude. Why would I sing the blues, for you?” – X Ambassadors in ‘BOOM’

I didn’t feel like writing in the last few weeks. My creative energy has been a little low and the little I did have I poured into the last chapter of my dissertation. Besides, where even to start? Because to be honest, it’s one of those periods where everything seems to be shifting all over the place and the only thing I know for sure is that I have no idea how everything’s going to turn out. I have been working hard, both professionally and personally, and despite some serious setbacks I do feel like I am still making headway. But, eh, balance? Harmony? Those are not in my near-future, at least, not that I can see.

In December two of my closest relations started to or actually did come to an end. I have found my peace with the one – have accepted that at least for now, this is the best thing for both of us – but the other has been rough. We’ve all heard of ‘ghosting’ before, and maybe we’ve even done it to someone. But when we talk about ‘ghosting’, we generally think about romantic relationships, especially the short-lived ones, with people we rather not waste our energy on having to explain why it just won’t work out. We generally don’t associate the practice with friendships of several years, people with whom you’ve shared the highest highs and the lowest lows, who were as close as family to you. And yet, that’s exactly what happened to me with one of my best friends. Naturally, I racked my brain trying to pinpoint what happened there, but nothing did. We communicated like always – and then one day there was no response. When that lasted a long while, I let it know that it was okay if some space was needed, but that I would need to know so I could give it. Still nothing. So this week, as I am adopting a lifestyle change anyway, I decided I’d had my fill, called the parents to ask if they could relay a message that I wanted my stuff back (like a spare set of my house keys), and that I’d be in touch with them about picking them up. That did get a response. Two lines to say my stuff’d be sent by registered mail. And that was it.

Needless to say that that hurts. I am a loyal friend and would probably give anything for you when I care about you. But as this happened, I couldn’t get my mind out of the thought spiral that said “What did you do?” even though that’s kind of the point: I didn’t do this, my friend did, to me. That’s easy to say, easy to understand, but not exactly easy to feel. So I am trying to think of it this way: I am changing my life and so the people I share it with will change too.
Sounds awfully mature doesn’t it?
I am not angry – perhaps I should be – I am sad and hurt, but being angry on my own behalf apparently only happens under different circumstances, noteably when I am certain that the foundation of love and care is strong. Anger subsides, love does not. But with my friend, there’s no foundation to speak of – whatever there was has now been destroyed – and it probably doesn’t help that deep down, I cannot shake the belief that all my friends will leave me in the end. I know, little melodramatic eh? But it’s what I’ve been conditioned to believe, what my experience has continously taught me, what has been affirmed and reaffirmed dozens of times. I will always give every friendship my all and be the best friend I can be, but when inevitably they leave for whichever reason, I am not angry because it’s just how things are.
I am working on changing that particular pattern though.

On to less gloomy things then. Work is going reasonably well, always too slow, there’s always more to do. But schedules are being adhered to, and my supervisor excitedly gave me useful feedback ending on the note “It’s really starting to look like a book, isn’t it?”
I share her enthusiasm for that part – it is looking like a proper book in the making. I am anxious about this being my last year. Heaven forbid I shouldn’t be done on time. I don’t think my psyche would survive missing a deadline, especially not one of this import. But the 31st of December is still far off and I have time. It is kind of funny that now, finally, I feel like I understand what I am supposed to be doing. Now, in my fourth year as PhD researcher, I think I have a clear image of what I need to do and how things need to turn out. Hopefully this insight will actually help me as at the moment all it does is freak me out that everything I’ve done before is not like that image at all (well, duh). I am looking forward to April. I will have the chance to do research for a couple of weeks in Washington D.C., all because I’ve been invited to a conference there. Things aren’t looking too bad then, it’s just the anxiety from other parts of life will always find its way into my working life, which – I’ve been told – is normal. Until so far, though, I have been keeping a semblance of balance pretty well. It’s a precarious thing and I am always worried I’ll slip, or that something else is added to my already overwhelmed mind and I will lose control again, but every day I manage to keep the balancing act together is a small victory.

***

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“As if how we construct meaning were not actually a matter of personal, intentional choice, of conscious decision” – David Foster Wallace in ‘This is Water’

Happy new year everyone!

I can’t say mine has been happy so far, but it has certainly been instructive. I did not make any resolutions – I never do – but I have learned a couple of things which will make my never-ending quest for a balanced, happy, and healthy life easier, or at least will bolster the effort. I want to share some of these things with you, perhaps they can be of use to you as well, and otherwise you might find some of them recognisable.

1)  I discovered limits.
Now, I must first note that I am not particularly happy about this one but that’s mostly because of the reasons that led to the discovery of these limits. Everyone has limits but knowing what they are can be a bit trickier. For me, I never thought I’d find limits to some of my strengths. For example, I never thought I’d find limits to my ability to forgive, but it turns out I am indeed only human and I, too, have limits there. Having reached my limits forces me to reconsider some very important parts of my life. It also taught me to recognise my strengths and how, sometimes, those qualities are quite exceptional. Ultimately, this (for me) new knowledge makes me question whether or not I am investing my qualities in the right people and in the right circumstances. Because it is in my power to change both: I can stop my investment in the one and begin investing elsewhere.

2)  I have power.
This new-found understanding that I can re-invest, that I am not somehow stuck, dependent on other people’s mercy to end scenarios that cause genuine suffering, partly came from understanding that I have power. I have never believed I deserved to claim a space in life. Other people have routinely treated me as though I was disposable and invisible, worth less than others, and I have often been made to feel as if I already claimed too much space in the world by nature. All this resulted in my doing all I could – always – to stay invisible, to remain hidden, to be unnoticeable. But not anymore. I may never be the one to take the spotlight unless it is absolutely necessary, and I may always claim less space than is my due, but I will no longer tolerate other people treating me as though I do not deserve a place in the world at all. At the very least I expect people who care about me to be proud to do so: not to deny they do to the rest of the world because if you pretend to others I am nothing special, then you make me feel like I am indeed nothing special. This shouldn’t be a tall order, but in my life there have been too many people who’d rather lie about my role in their lives than admit that I am important to them, sometimes more so than ye olde average friend.

3)  I can, in fact, be very angry.
This may not seem like such an extraordinary feat, but for me, anger has always been an ellusive thing. I couldn’t be angry at people because I never felt like I had the right to be angry at them: after all, we all make mistakes, and I am hardly perfect now am I? Although I am no more perfect than I was before, I have learned that being justifiably angry on my own behalf (previously I only excelled at being angry on other people’s behalfs) is okay. It is okay to feel anger when someone hurts you. It is okay to feel anger when someone betrays you. And it is definitely okay to express that anger outwards. For one, it helps me not to turn the generated anger against myself – a trick that always aided my ‘dark side’ – and for another, it might actually help the person to whom you direct your anger: perhaps they learn not to do what they did again. And if that is not the case, and the behaviour which caused the anger does not change, then there is no clearer and plainer evidence to move on and cut that person from your life. Anger does not make me happy and since my goal in life is to be happy, I will try my best to only gather those around me who do not solicit that emotion.

4)  I matter.
This is the last one for today, but it is the most important one by far. Having the power to claim a space in life is great but relatively useless if I don’t think I matter enough to do so. I have a natural tendency to put others’ needs before my own – a tendency easily and often exploited by those who take it for granted and who expect no less of me. But I matter, too. What I want, what I need, what I feel, what I dream, what I do, it all matters. And if it proves too difficult a concept to grasp for others, if they believe that bulldozing over me is acceptable, then they are sabotaging my quest for happiness. Because feeling like I am seen, like I am important, like I am loved, like I am cared about, that makes me happy, and it makes me happy to make others feel those things too. I am fairly certain I always try my best to make sure the people I care about know that they matter to me and though I do not want external validation that I, indeed, matter, there is a vast difference between receiving that validation and being made to feel like I’m insignificant. Of course, this ties in with the previously mentioned acknowledgement of my role in people’s lives. By down-sizing the role I play in someone’s life, that person makes me feel like I am less important to them than they claim me to be. In the past, I found this acceptable because I couldn’t imagine valuing myself either, but I am getting better at estimating my own value and as I grow, I can no longer accept that people see my value, understand my value, praise my value to them in private, but then devalue me in public.

Of course, I note these things and how I intend to apply them in my personal life, but these learning curves (for that’s what they are) will come in equally handy in my professional life. I will have limits to what I am willing to do at work. I have the power to implement boundaries. I can and will use my emotions – particularly the power of anger – to do so. And I am not the easily replaced, barely note-worthy, one of many PhDs who wander around the university. My work matters. Realising these things helped me start my final chapter with a lot more perspective. I feel less hesitant in asserting my expertise, less doubtful about my findings, my contribution to my field, my ability to handle the material I have found – I always secretly believed that if only someone better was doing my work they could get so much more out of it. I am not an imposter and it may well be true that someone else could do other things with the material I uncover, and I welcome them to do so, but it won’t be better. It will be different.

***

“Chickens will peck, peck, peck, until they’ve worked out who’s top chicken. But you know who’s really top chicken?”

naamloos

– C.G.P. Grey
Because we are able to take control, especially in our own life’s hierarchy 😉

“But it’s the truth even if it didn’t happen” – Ken Kesey in ‘One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest’

That December and I don’t get along is a well-known, long since established fact. I’m sure it’s nothing personal for either December or me, sometimes it just so happens that without truly knowing someone, and thus without knowing the reason behind the dislike, there is a sense of animosity from the first encounter onward. Sure you know what I’m talking about – though it’s more common between people than it is between a person and a concept that lacks any form of agency. If you know what it feels like to consider someone a threat – for whatever reason, be it as direct competition for something you want, or because you think they might outclass you – you know how I feel about December. And that it doesn’t make sense is not exactly an earth-shattering revelation: some threats are perceived without direct causation. They are constructed by projecting our own insecurities unto others, out of envy or out of fear. They are a form of prejudice, believing the other to be something that they may not actually be.
We tend to dislike this irrational experience – it often feels like it’s the truth even when it didn’t happen. After all, what has that person ever done to you? Isn’t it entirely possible they’re truly nice people, but you haven’t given them a chance to prove you right or wrong?

I am coming across this particularly nasty sensation more often nowadays, though I am generally not the one who thinks ill of anyone unless I know the person well enough to form an opinion. What I have noticed, however, is how some people have apparently classified me as a threat, not just in my personal world, but also in the academic setting. I do not believe everyone does this intentionally. It may well be that some people act on instinct, using me to fill a gap in their own doom-scenarios. It is unfortunate that this gap happens to be that of the ‘villain’. Much like how stereotypes were created back in the early-modern period, come to think of it…
Perhaps it is easier to avoid having to face some of your own issues by projecting them in this way. But I guess we can all agree that it makes no one any happier: I am not happier when relative strangers treat me with animosity be it directly or indirectly; they are surely not happier basking in the negativity of their inexplicable emotions of animosity. At least I hope not, or I am sad to say that you have some real issues my friend. So, do a quick self-check when you find yourself a little too upset with someone you’ve never met and preferably before you form your opinion: do I dislike this person because of who she/he is? Or because secretly I want what he or she seems to have? If the first, your feelings, no matter how inexplicable are justified. If the second, I am sad to say that you have issues, my friend, and you are mistakenly trying to make them someone else’s problem.

That being said, and I am sorry for my coarseness today – I am a little tired of the bullshit, December sucks enough as it is – I think this’ll be the last blog of the year. Right now, I am having a hard time (shocker, I know) and I feel like some people are trying to take advantage of what I share on here. At any other time, I wouldn’t care, I knew the risks when I started this blog (almost a year ago!) but wisdom also means knowing when to protect yourself just a little more. And I think I need all the protection I can get for the next couple of weeks.

As for work, well, it’s okay. I am doing more at home than if I were to work at the office so that’s a good thing. My chapter is sloooowly being planned, I will give a paper later today and that marks the last presentation for the year. At long last I might add. I think this last chapter has a lot of potential, so that’s good. But to be honest, I just want my dissertation to be done. I want to defend it, receive my doctorate, and most likely get out of academia as quickly as possible. My mind keeps going back to a tweet I came across the other day. At first it just made me laugh, and then the sad truth of it sank in and I began to realise just how much I dislike the cutthroat attitude, the high-pressure/low-reward system, the envy, politics, and the generally broken culture of academia. Such a simple tweet (“Of course academia is not a cult. Cults offer a sense of belonging”) and I finally register that what I enjoy most is working in supportive surroundings, not just because I want to be supported and appreciated, but because I want to give support and appreciation – it’s something I enjoy. Currently I am so extremely lucky with the incredible group of PhDs with whom I share an office and some of the problems of working on our respective projects. We know that our self-created support system is exceptional – except it shouldn’t be. And I don’t want to perpetuate a system which I cannot improve because of the existing hierarchy. Even being a fully-fledged employee, doing my PhD and teaching, helping out in committees and boards, in short, doing my part, I still don’t feel like I am welcome. And it’s been three years. Regardless of how well they know me, know what I am capable of, when they look at PhDs, what they see is a temporary staff member who can be employed to breaking point and then just a little more. No one thinks this in these terms – at least I sincerely hope not – but it’s a sense that permeated the academic setting due to lack of funds, lack of manpower, governmental restrictions, reductions, quotas, and other rubbish that only serves to hamper certain faculties of the university (noticeably those that do not have a direct return-profit system to show the results of governmental investments…).

But who knows, I might end up in academia after all, sacrificing a little piece of personal happiness for a career in an area that I am passionate about. Luckily I am passionate about more than one thing, so I have options.
Before I end this last blog of the year, I would like to thank my friends and family who’ve been absolutely brilliant. I know for some it was a bit of a shock to find out some time ago that I had broken my heart, after all I hadn’t been very open about my romantic entanglements – I tend not to share those things on social media. And I know it was likely also a bit of a struggle to keep up with my mood swings (sorry). But as this is the time of the year to reflect upon what matters most to you and be thankful for having them: I am incredibly thankful to all the people who like me for who I am. You do not half know how exceptional it is that you are able to look beyond the ‘issues’ and the ‘difficulties’ and to allow me to be myself around you. And according to you I am a dedicated, helpful, and kind person – something I tend to forget or be completely blind to – who wants to give love, care, compassion and understanding to those around me. Allowing me to give those things to you is something I do not take for granted, as I do not take for granted your presence in my life.
To my readers: thank you for reading and for sticking around. The overwhelming majority of you have shown me nothing but love, and that is always such a powerful reminder of the goodness some relative strangers possess.

Happy holidays to all.

***

Photo credit: Jimmy Chin.

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“Leave my loneliness unbroken! – quit the bust above my door!” […] Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.” – Edgar Allan Poe ‘The Raven’

With shorter days, colder and less sunny weather, and the holidays coming up, it is more difficult to stay positive and not dwell on the bad parts of life. I am sure most people can relate to some degree – December is known for its depressing side-effects – and though I wish I could give some grand advice on how to get through it in one piece, truth is, I am not even sure if I will be able to myself. There is one particular topic I haven’t really discussed in detail on this blog, but as my least favourite time of the year approaches and I suffer from it more intensely than usual, I think it’s time to highlight a well-known ailment that affects a large portion of the population: loneliness.

Loneliness isn’t reserved for any particular social group, nor is it age related. According to a variety of studies “loneliness is a condition that, like chronic pain, can become an affliction for almost anyone” and it affects not just a person’s mental health but it has some serious physical consequences as well, affecting one’s blood pressure, brain, sleeping habits, and even the number of white blood cells that are circulated throughout the body(Cacioppo et al.). Though this is probably a familiar distinction, I still think it’s an important one to make: loneliness and being alone are not the same. One of my favourite observations in the previously cited paper must be that “lonely individuals typically do not voluntarily become lonely; rather they ‘find themselves’ on one edge of the continuum of social connections and feeling desperately isolated.” Of course, there are a variety of tried and tested methods of combating loneliness. Creating qualitatively high social relations with other people is one of them, and creating a mutual support system (where the lonely individual is supported but is also a valuable source of support for the other) is another. But, today, despite having done the reading, despite knowing how to stand up to loneliness, I simply feel lonely. Sometimes not all the knowledge in the world can change that.

Loneliness is a big problem for me. To some degree, I always feel lonely. It gets worse at the end of November, and definitely throughout December, but up until last year, I wasn’t doing too bad. Then last December I didn’t quite manage it on my own and I spent the last week of the year committed so they could help me stay safe. Needless to say, I am dreading  December this year. However, seeing as I was making so many changes to my life, I was hoping it might be easier on me, and it might’ve been… were it not for the fact that the loss of two important relations in my life have completely undermined those efforts. For someone who feels lonely regardless, having to process a broken heart and a broken friendship is just a bit too much. Relationships end, friendships do, too, though I really rather they didn’t, and I am well-aware that it is simply part of what we call ‘life’ but sometimes ‘life’ has a really bad timing and it makes everything else more difficult.

I do feel isolated though I know I have friends and I know that my family cares. The loneliness doesn’t stem from my having no social connections or events because I do, and yes, I even enjoy them. It’s just that I usually have one or two people in my life who are really close to me, and at the moment, one of them broke my heart and we aren’t communicating, and the other, well, I don’t know what’s going on there, but I know that all my attempts at any form of communication have been solidly ignored. For more than a month. Without a traceable cause. I am not suggesting that there isn’t a cause – just that I cannot for the life of me fathom what the cause might be. The heartbreak doesn’t seem to be going anywhere and it’s a pain I might’ve endured if it was the only source of pain at the moment. But I cannot (and will not try to) describe how much it hurts to be suddenly stone-walled by someone I truly care deeply about and whom, I thought, also cared about me.

And so, I feel quite lonely. It feels a little uncomfortable to share this as publicly as I do now. For some reason, we are conditioned to consider ‘feeling lonely’ as something shameful or ungrateful. After all, I have friends. I have people who care. So what am I complaining about? This conditioning might not be as obviously displayed as some other cultural conditionings we have internalised, but I think it’s exactly what leads people to ask how you are, and when your honest answer is that you feel lonely, the reply inevitably is a variation of ‘I’m sorry to hear that’. And that’s where the conversation ends. From experience, I know how good it feels for someone to respond with ‘how can I help you?’
Whether or not the offer of help is accepted is a different matter. Being offered it in the first place makes a difference though. It breaks through that notion of social isolation. It’s a reminder that someone cares and that the threshold to reaching out doesn’t have to be the size of a mountain.
Of course, don’t offer help if you don’t intend to provide it. But imagine that reaching out and having a cup of coffee with someone who could really use some social connection could help them, could make them feel better – even for a short time… well, to me that sounds really good. So to any and all who feel a little low (or not), I would love to catch up over coffee. Because if there’s one thing I know helps me, personally, it’s helping and caring about other people. So, a win-win I’d say.

***

I find the psychology behind loneliness quite fascinating, so for those of you who share that interest, some articles that I found interesting though there’s a lot out there that is equally fascinating…
– Tilmann von Soest et al. 2018. ‘Development of Loneliness in Midlife and Old Age: Its Nature and Correlates’ in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. DOI: 10.1037/pspp0000219
– Stephanie Cacioppo et al. 2015. ‘Loneliness: Clinical Import and Interventions’ in Perspectives on Psychological Science10(2): 238-249. DOI: 10.1177/1745691615570616.
– Christopher M. Masi et al. 2011. ‘A Meta-Analysis of Interventions to Reduce Loneliness’ in Personality and Social Psychology Reviewed. 15(3) DOI: 10.1177/1088868310377394
– John T. Cacioppo et al. 2009. ‘Alone in the Crowd: The Structure and Spread of Loneliness in a Large Social Network’ in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 97(6): 977-91. DOI: 10.1037/a0016076

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