I started making grad school plans again tonight. You know the drill: which schools, where, who, when, why. I could feel butterflies in my stomach--and the ill-tempered birds of discontent coming in to roost.
The butterflies are easy to explain. I love philosophy, and there is a part of it that comes naturally to me: the part where I sit in the library and read and think and write. I know I complain about it a lot, but I love it. I also like sitting in classrooms or philosophy talks and letting words and ideas and arguments wash over me; it makes me feel like a surfer, standing in wait to catch the wave of truth, ready to be carried out into the wide blueness with my hair whipping in the salty spray. (Yeah. Ok. I've never been surfing. But I imagine that's what it would feel like--a lot like sitting in a philosophy classroom, plus water, sun, and sand.) So the butterflies are there because I am in love with ideas, and I am in love with the way philosophy, in particular, works out and on and through ideas. It just makes me weak at the knees.
Ah, but the birds of discontent, you ask? They're a little more difficult.
Way back during the last round of applications I wrote a post on self-respect. In it, I said that if I was rejected by grad schools, I wasn't going to count that as a failure, that it would only be a failure if I thought that my self-worth was measured in acceptances. I also said that I was confident I had something to offer philosophy, even if it took a while to catch anyone's attention.
I was very confident. Breathtakingly so. I had plans to pack up and move to a university town even if they rejected me. I was going to be like the woman in that Bible story about the judge--pounding on doors until I was let in and my case was heard.
I am less confident now, both about my intellectual capabilities and about what I have to offer philosophy. Partly because I've spent most of my time for the last year with people who are significantly smarter than I am. But mainly because I had been accustomed to a steady diet of praise: I was used to people telling me that I was doing well and that I would do well. And then I came here and it was like the phone company cut my line. My successes felt inadequate and the words of praise stopped coming. I had no idea how much stock I put in hearing someone else say: This is good; you can do this; you're going somewhere. Now I have to wait until the end of the semester for the momentary boost of a good mark or a kind comment at the end of a paper.
So that's one reason for the birds of discontent, I guess. I am word-needy, more so than I realized. And I have been learning what it means to live without satisfying that craving. I'm not saying it isn't healthy. But it sure is hard.
The other reason for the birds is that I am realizing that, in the end, the marks and the papers--even the ones with nice comments--are not what matter (or, at the very least, they aren't the main thing). It's also important to know the right people and have the right people backing you, and it's important to be able to say the right (smart, canny, intelligent) things at the right time. And that absolutely terrifies me. It terrifies me, and it makes me feel very alone. How can I even hope to compete when there are so many people who are smarter and more eloquent and better than I am?
And that leads me to the third reason. Someone once told me she thought the thing I was most afraid of was failure. I laughed and said, "Who? Me?" (Yes, you.) I think now that she was right. I am very afraid of failing, and I think fear is what makes the lack of words this year and the thought of having to fight for a place in academia (or anywhere else) so poignant and so unsettling. I am coming to terms with the fact that I will never be the best at what I do, but what if I'm not even good enough?
So that explains the birds of discontent. That explains the sudden aviary I'm housing in my stomach after clicking through department websites.
But, you know, they're only crows. And the butterflies are so lovely, and that sea tang? So beguiling.
Some things are worth the risk.