Photo borrowed from https://hilldalehouse.wordpress.com/2012/05/
It’s always nice to let your belly out now and then. Growing up, probably as far back as first grade, I spent most of the time concentrating on “sucking it in” to look skinnier. Now this is second nature, and I don’t even have to think about keeping my tummy muscles tense. This morning I had a bowl of cereal with raisins (comically, we buy fruit-free muesli and then every morning I add the raisins back in to my bowl just to make it sweeter) and a cup of jasmine tea with milk. Afterwards, since this week I’m not going into the lab, I turned on the heater in my room, crawled into bed under the fluffy, white wool duvet and shut my eyes. Resting after eating always gives me a sense of bliss. Feeling full and happy, I rolled up my shirt half way and let my smooth belly balloon out to all of its glory, much as I’ve seen a few old Latino men do on hot days. Just to give my belly its own place. Just to say, “It’s okay, today you don’t have to suck it in. Today you’re good just how you are.”
First point: It doesn’t work. So look elsewhere if you’re looking for a real guide to becoming superhuman (http://www.wikihow.com/Pretend-to-Be-a-Superhero).
I’ve powered through January and the first part of February without letting any emotion bubble up. I’ve gotten a lot of work done, made many plans, and come up with a better idea of my career path. I’ve exercised regularly, I’ve budgeted scrupulously, and I’ve indulged minimally. I even bought a book written in German and read a few pages (this is big). But actually I can’t say that I’m proud of any of this. Even though these were the very things I strived for, now they seem meaningless. Because in the process of becoming superhuman, I lost the soul, the funk, the zeal, whatever you’d like to call it…the vibrancy of being human.
There’s something really appealing about feeling nothing. You can appear strong and confident to everyone watching (or at least you think), and you can even do a good job of fooling yourself sometimes. You feel limitless in your ability to take on new things. Sometimes it feels like there aren’t even enough new things to take on for you to keep your rush going. Last week I wrote to the coordinator of my Ph.D. program with a detailed plan of my next five years of research. Her response essentially said to chill out, that she will work with me to achieve my goals when the time comes, but that it’s too early to be worrying about it. This was upsetting, because I wanted to worry about! I wanted to plan the future with cold clarity. In that future world I’m the star of my own show. For the soap opera that is presently my life, I barely got a callback. Knowing that the present world outside is painful or scary, I thought shutting down emotionally and becoming a superhuman seemed like a good plan.
The only problem with that is that you can’t selectively shut off feelings. Out with the bath water goes the baby. Start replacing cocoa-dusted cappuccinos with low-fat Greek yogurt in order to become more awesome, and you might feel healthier, but are you really? What if when we follow these crazy superhuman ideals of the grocery-store-check-out-aisle magazines, we grow further from our real selves, we run 30 minutes a day farther from the nest of comfort and sensuosity that nurtures our souls? What if, as model Cameron Russell admits (http://www.ted.com/talks/cameron_russell_looks_aren_t_everything_believe_me_i_m_a_model.html), the closer you get to superhuman, the worse you feel? The art of being sensuous, of accepting our humanity, is an art that merits more attention among today’s fast-paced, strive-until-you-make-it, dehumanizing messages. I’ve decided–at least for today–to take off my cape, add another sugar to my cappuccino, and return to being “just” me.
My new year’s resolution for 2013 was to conquer fear. I’m tired of letting fear keep me inside a tiny box, and my imagination comes to life when I ponder the question, “What would I do if I weren’t afraid?” I started off by swimming in the ocean off the Gold Coast of Australia. I’m not a good swimmer, so waves are quite intimidating for me, and I’m afraid of jellyfish, sharks, and well, even fish. Also my friend told me that in Australia there’s this octopus called the blue-ringed octopus that hangs out in tide pools and around coral reefs and will kill you within minutes of contact. So I was terrified the whole time I was in the water, but I swam for maybe 10 minutes and came out feeling like a hero. I wanted more of that hero sensation upon returning to Germany, but instead my fears overwhelmed me. In the first few days back, I felt anxious about walking out the door and getting on a bus, anxious about all that I needed to be doing and was not doing, anxious at the thought of the many dark, cold months ahead. I was quite happy to abandon my new year’s resolution, to instead stay in bed where everything was familiar and comfortable yet stagnant. I was happy there until one day when I had to make some revisions on a paper up for publication, and there was a deadline in just a few days. I panicked. Even though I had written almost the entire paper successfully, these few minor changes now seemed impossible for me to make. I stayed in bed trying to calm myself down, trying to overcome my fear, but I just couldn’t. Eventually I had to get up, walk over to the computer, and make the revisions to the paper. And afterwards, of course, I felt great. I felt that hero sensation once more. Now I’ve decided come upon another fear: writing this blog. I’ve put off writing an entry for so long because I’ve been too afraid to write. Is the content even worth posting? Does my writing just sound like well-thought-out complaints to everyone reading? Then I realized that the first step to conquering fear is to notice when you’re afraid. I had started to notice that I was afraid to write a post, and I knew that the only way to feel better was to write a post. So I’m writing a post saying, “Hey, I’m afraid.” Maybe fear isn’t something that necessarily should be “conquered.” Fear tells us exactly what we want to do but feel we can’t. Instead of conquering it, maybe we should greet it–“Hey, I see you, and I know I’m afraid”–and then just keep walking in that direction that we feel we shouldn’t go, whether it’s into the water or up to the keyboard. Maybe I can get to know this fear inside myself, become friends with it, and use it as my compass. Now when fear comes around, instead of conquering it, I’ll try to take it as a sign that I’m doing something worthwhile.
My mom recently came to visit me for a little over a week, and suddenly I started to see Germany in color. Even though it was freezing most of the time she was here, the snowfall was gentle and we saw the sun more days than not. We traveled to other cities, saw more Christmas markets than anyone needs to see, and had enough German food to last us all through 2013. There’s something great about traveling with a family member. Any bit of a family team, even if it’s only two members strong, has a shield around them when traveling. A family, unlike me by myself, evokes respect and compassion from strangers. I was proud to travel around with my mom. I’m proud to be her daughter. I even introduced her to the waiter at my favorite Indian eatery joyfully, “This is my mother!” As if I thought that now there appeared a missing puzzle piece for him, a glimpse into the person who I really am. Now that she’s gone, things feel lonely and cold again, and I realize what a wonderful sense of purpose being part of a family provides.
I returned from Australia a few days ago, and I was dreading the wall of disappointment that would hit me as I came back to this rainy, cold place. Contrary to my fears, nothing floored me. Everything was just as I had remembered it to be and not one bit worse. When I stepped up to the line at Border Control, I knew just what the officer would ask me and I knew just what to respond. I knew where to go to catch a train and that it would come exactly on time so there was no sense in running to catch one on the off chance that it hadn’t left yet. I knew that it would be raining once I got to Heidelberg and that the bus that goes to my somewhat rural suburb would take ages to come, so I would have to catch a taxi. I had the 10 Euro waiting in my wallet. It was 9.90. There was something comforting and yet extremely boring about it all…hence my love-hate relationship with Germany. When I went into the lab the next day, though, I was hit with something unexpected. The Ph.D. student who has mentored me since late September said, “How was Australia? The experiments are all done, and I’ll start writing next week. What will you be doing now?” And since then I’ve been in a state of panic over expectations and what I should do with the rest of my time here (8 months). The problem is that no one really cares what I’m doing here, as long as I’m confident about its merit. That means that there is some sort of expectation from these higher-ups that I do something great, but the guidelines about what exactly I should be producing aren’t clear. I went into science to do something of significance, to have clear expectations and very little oversight, not the other way around! What is the point of having all of this supervision, as I flop about on my own gasping for some clear route of action? And of course there’s a deeper, darker question that lies at the core of all of this: What am I even doing here anyway? Oh, I’d better pick myself up and run quickly away from that question, because in that question lies the potential of not just anxiety but of frustration and great disappointment. So I’m diverting my attention for now. There are many things in Germany, after all, that are comfortingly certain. Right now is the time of Christmas markets, where lots of hearty and sugary things will be for sale. I know the restaurants and cafes where I can duck in and eat a decent meal, pretending that I’m just here on vacation and my actual role doesn’t matter. I know that for at least the next month no one will ask me (I’m crossing my fingers) what I’m actually doing here because there are too many distractions with Christmas and shopping and family and mirth. It’s just when all of that blows over and I’ll swipe my card, take my lab coat from the hook and wear it around the empty lab with the machines humming, half of all the Ph.D. students having finished and left, that someone will spot me and ask, “What are you actually doing?” But for now I’ll let Christmas distract me and others from all of my struggles to find purpose. I suppose that is kind of the Christmas spirit: let’s set aside the expectations of reality for these brief moments and celebrate humanity.
I had been driving myself crazy for the past month worrying that I wasn’t accomplishing enough while here in Germany. I had made game plan after game plan to try to make the most of my research experience while earning plenty of course credits to transfer back to Miami. I was worried about timing, about what people would think of my work ethic, about money. Then on Friday the guy who has been my kind of mentor in the lab for the past month, an Italian-German student in the final year of his Ph.D., stopped me and changed my whole experience here for the better. I had just come from this Molecular Biology class, which I hated and which was going to mean way too much study time, I feared. I had come into the lab and was sitting with my mentor as he contemplated whether to drink his cold coffee from the day before when I decided to ask for his perspective. I said, “I’m in this Molecular Biology class, and it’s really complicated and detailed and I have to study a lot. It’s so boring. Will I really need to know this amount of detail in my field?” He replied that molecular biology is always useful and of course applicable to what we are doing and then asked, “How many days is it?” I answered, “Well, it’s a semester-long course. It’s every day for a semester.” “A whole semester!?!” he exclaimed. “No way should you do it!” I laughed uneasily, wondering how anyone would get through college on that stipulation alone. He went on, “I thought it was for a few days or something. You should definitely not do it. I will tell the boss if you do it and he’ll have you kicked out.” He laughed. I laughed too, relaxing a bit more. I explained, “I just feel like this whole year will be a waste if I don’t at least earn some credits and do some important research.” “You worry too much,” he answered. “The purpose of your year here should be to have fun and to travel. You’re looking at going to see some labs in Greece and France. I think this is good. Your focus should not be on finding the best labs; it should be on location. Do they have anything in Spain? You speak Spanish.” I laughed as the worry clouds started to clear from my head and my shoulders began to relax for the first time in weeks. He went on, “Do you guys really care so much about work in America or what?” I answered that we very much do. “Well you’re in Europe now,” he assured me, “so you should adapt to the mentality of Europe. Travel and try to relax. You have your whole life to worry in America if you want to.” He was right. I knew he was right. And after almost three months in Germany of stress, a light switched on thanks to him, and since then I have been happy.
Toxic relationships involve people who, knowingly or not, are swimming in their own pools of toxic self-pity. I’ve asked myself over and over how I can avoid being hurt by such relationships. I’ve wondered if there’s some do-gooder approach to them, if there’s away I can clean up the toxic waste or put boundaries around it so that it won’t spread any further or compromise my own dignity. There are all kinds of suggestions out there on how to deal with toxic parents, siblings, friends, etc. but what I’ve read so far just doesn’t seem to help. It results in a slightly different frame of mind but a continuation of the pain. When the most recent load of toxic waste was dumped on me by a loved one, I realized something that may save my sanity: the only way to avoid the damage of a toxic relationship is to not jump in it. What does this mean? Contrary to many things I’ve read, it doesn’t mean drawing respectful boundaries with the person, it doesn’t mean trying to understand the person, and it doesn’t mean shutting the person out. It means that when their toxic rain starts pouring down on you, you calmly open your umbrella and keep on walking until it stops. What he or she wants is for you to react to the toxicity, to call out some sort of pity or attention from you. But reacting to him or her would only poison you, which is why you must refuse to jump in the pool of toxic waste in the first place. You recognize it for what it is (toxic nonsense), say, “Huh, that’s no good,” and then you keep walking safe and dry and with your head held high. Because life is too short to be tormented by these people. And they’re not going to get any better either unless people stop paying attention to their games. They cause us problems, but the problems aren’t really even the issue. Problems can be solved in a logical way; we do it all the time. It can sometimes even be satisfying to meet these challenges. But not when we’ve jumped into the toxic waste pool. Then we’re incapacitated, left to drown, just like our toxic loved one. Misery loves company. Don’t join the misery; just let toxic waste lie.