The beginning of this week brought the beginning of a new year: Rosh HaShanah, the celebration of the Jewish New Year, began on Monday. I had in mind a few thoughts I wanted to share, and every intention of doing so on Tuesday.
Then on a Monday a student at NC State completed suicide, and on Tuesday I had homework, and on Tuesday night I fought to finish my homework due Wednesday.
So in the midst of all these things, I never even realized I hadn’t welcomed the new year on my blog, and being on campus, in classes, the most I had been able to do to celebrate this occasion was share some apples and honey with others in the community. On Monday, a fellow math student had shared challah in the graduate lounge. That had made my day.
The truth is, death is a great occasion to think about life, and a new year is a great occasion to think about what we’re doing with our lives. So, naturally, I did.
It started with an idea I had Wednesday evening, a simple thought I jotted down, but the thought kept going and growing, and soon enough I saw in it another path to follow.
You see, all these years I’ve been making visions for how I want to change the world but I never made a vision for how I want to change myself. All I’ve ever done is set goals and benchmarks that are always further and further away, and at one point “the next step” was so far away I could no longer reach it–and since then all I’ve felt like is a failure.
But this isn’t a problem with who I am; it’s a problem with who I think I should be. And that, my friend, is a problem with who society says I should be: All my life I’ve been told what success looks like, what men should look like, what a good student should look like. In some ways I met these ideals–I received scholarships, I had a job, I had a perfect GPA. And in other ways I didn’t: I’m Jewish, gay, I don’t have six-pack abs or bulging biceps.
It was a mixed bag, but the bag was still full: Maybe I don’t look like I want to, I was able to tell myself, but at least I meet the other minimum measures of success.
And then suddenly the bag felt light, possibly even empty. So in order to keep that bag full, I had to constantly take on more and strive to be more. Yes, I will take that internship. Yes, I will take that leadership position. Yes, I will take twenty hours in one semester–in addition to those leadership roles, my work roles, and my community roles.
But the truth is, and what I’ve been struggling to accept, is that this made the bag too heavy–and although I continued to carry around that bag, and though it weighed no less, all the things inside it had created a hole and now that bag was empty–truly empty.
I went from feeling like I was the embodiment of success to feeling like a hopeless failure.
At least for the moment, I’ll refrain from talking about how my privileged status as a white male contributed to this feeling of entitlement to success and recognition, but it’s important to keep in mind: When people belong to privileged classes, they internalize the advantages they’re systematically (and undeservedly) offered, so not only do they hold themselves to higher (and unobtainable) standards, the moment of failure is akin to a death of identity, and having started feeling so high, that fall feels so much further (even though realistically, it isn’t far at all–it’s only the illumination of an ignorant perception). In a way it’s like being in a dream, seeing yourself as flawless and beautiful, and then waking up to see your reflection is tousled and oily and overwhelmed with baggy eyes.
But I digress.
I was talking about The Bag. The bag of expectations that we’re given by society, a bag that we aren’t born with but pick up along the way, a bag we continually fill without ever realizing it. The Bag gets heavy, and when it gets too heavy, we’re in trouble. Burdened by a weight we can no longer carry, we begin to crumble and eventually we collapse.
The solution is simple: we put down The Bag.
And then we go shopping for a new one: maybe it’s a backpack or a purse or even a satchel that fits through your belt loops (you know, like a fanny pack, but totally not, because, you know, maybe they’re not cool–which itself is an idea better left in The Bag rather than for defining Your Bag). The important part is you find something that’s comfortable and easy for you to carry, and then you start filling it with the things you want to fill it with–and nothing else. (So that comment about fanny packs? Don’t put it in there.)
What’s your vision of personal success? What’s your definition of greatness and looking good and feeling healthy and living well? These are things we each must decide for ourselves, and while it’s never a bad thing to listen to the sound advice of knowledgeable others, the ultimate choice of what we choose to carry will always be entirely our own.
I’m not really sure what’s in my bag yet. I’m not really sure I’ve completely put down The Bag yet. But now that I’ve seen it’s there, I can at least toss out the rubbish as I realize it, and in their place I can add the treasures I really desire. I don’t want to define physical beauty as muscles and white skin and a full head of hair, but I’m not sure how I want to see it. I don’t want to say every good student must make no mistakes, instantly know the answer without struggling, and be infinitely confident in their mastery of the material; but I don’t know what standards I want to hold myself to when I ask if I’m a good student or not. And I certainly don’t want to define success as being able to do everything, being constantly happy and without conflict, and having unwavering financial stability while being debt-free; but I’m not sure what to put in its place.
However, sometimes the first step to figuring out what something is, is figuring out what it isn’t. Just like trying to solve a riddle by process of elimination, sometimes we have to work “backwards” (or rather, against our linear perceptions of intuition) in order to find what we’re looking for. It’s a work in progress, but so long as we’re maintaining progress, we’re doing the work we need to get there. And even in those moments when it feels like progress has stopped, the answer isn’t to task ourselves to “do more ” or “be better” but rather to reflect on and redefine the progress we need to keep moving forward.
And forward doesn’t necessarily mean upwards or outwards or into another kind of person. Rather our aim should be to fully realize ourselves however we are.
Sometimes that will mean reaching inside, digging out the qualities we have forsaken, setting aside bad habits and fostering the good that’s already there. Other times it’ll be maintaining the positive habits we already have without judging ourselves too harshly for not being someone else, for not being better or more than who we already are.
I don’t know what that end goal is for me, if it’s even a goal at all. But recognizing it’s mine, and mine alone, for the choosing, is a sweet and promising way to start the new year.