To Selve and Justice

I woke up the day after the 2016 election, having gotten only two hours of sleep, and sobbed. The previous night’s events sank in with a nightmarish haze. I worked from home, sitting between emails, in the silent cocoon of our apartment. Jack was away in Italy, but our cat, who always sits near me when I cry, planted herself on the soft blanket on my lap. 

The election was a particularly harsh blow because I had recently emerged from an incubator of idealism and possibility. Until the previous May, I’d called Middlebury my home, an idyllic, rigorous, elite liberal arts college in Vermont. My days were bookended by mist rising off the river at dawn and the evening alpenglow. Even the natural harshness, like ice storms that froze every individual tree branch of the Green Mountains, felt meaningful and important.  I was embraced by a softness that called for human humility through organic beauty. The mountains and the light, the seasonal descent into coldness then upward toward bloomed warmth, were aspirational, a reminder of my place in the great net of things. 

It wasn’t until recent months that the depth to which I missed Middlebury crystallized. It was a place that challenged and enlivened me. I felt known and loved. It provided the foundation for my flourishing as an adult woman. I am left only with gratitude for it all.

Middlebury was a unique place, where I was warmed by the joy of education. Even the low points, which of course there were quite a few, were gifts that offered growth. Those valleys, nearly exclusively social and romantic disappointments, gave me opportunities to radically focus on my own care and what truly mattered. Candles, meditation, lavender-scented laundry, Lake Street Dive, vegetarian food, evening drives back from hikes with friends, family visits. I found effective ways to re-center.

Like most altruistic humanities students, I  felt I had much of life figured out upon graduation. I had already met Jack. I graduated with highest honors, a job offer, and an acceptance to a two-year graduate program. A few weeks before my graduation, I gave a talk as part of a fellowship I’d received on “What Matters to Me,” in which I detailed with full certainty the centrality of empathy in public life. I talked about connection, humanities and social change, and trauma-informed education. I bought into a progress-focused narrative of history that generally guaranteed change for the social good would be possible within our generation’s lifetime. I had a regular meditation practice and a piecemeal, feminist spirituality that offered me comfort.

Then, graduation was over, and I boarded a plane bound for England, where I planned to spend the summer. As soon as the aircraft hit 10,000 feet, something in me cracked and panic rushed in. It was as though someone had slapped me across my face, and my calm self-satisfaction crumbled. Without distraction or anyone to talk to for seven hours, I realized I did not know where I was headed. Away from Middlebury, where things felt safe and attainable, where I had gained a lot of wisdom and knowledge, I realized I had excelled, but not discovered what I loved. I didn’t know what I should do with my life, cliche but true.

Nevertheless, I found my footing temporarily. I spent the summer wandering around Oxford with Jack. I wrote, read books ranging from Victorian novels to self help manuals, and drank too many cups of good coffee. We went to church. We bought flowers to brighten Jack’s apartment. We cooked elaborate lunches and played tennis on grass courts. Then the summer began to wind down, and we packed up Jack’s life there and said goodbye to precious Oxford. We moved to New York, adopted our cat Isabel, bought furniture, and hosted dinner parties in our little room and a half. I found work. I voted.

I walked into my poll station with a mix of trepidation and hope. Again, good things felt possible. It felt natural that good would triumph, that God was certainly on the side of the righteous, the women, the marginalized, the awake. But with 45’s election, the earth shifted backward on its axis, and what I had envisioned possible soured into something darker than I realized possible. As a minority and daughter of an immigrant, I certainly knew the ways racism was stitched through our society. I was aware of the refugee crisis. Jack and I had been in the U.K. during the Brexit election. However,  I thought the election following two terms the Obama presidency, two terms of beautiful integrity, compassion, virtue, and progress, would turn out well. I thought Americans could be reformed based on basic principles of common human decency.

I realized so much of my conceptions of social problems hinged on people not being educated enough to understand the issues at hand. If people only understood what implicit bias is… If people could just see the statistics around mass incarceration in this country…If people understood education as a public health problem… etc. etc.

My reaction to the election is, what my therapist described not as anxiety, but as dread.  I have learned to see my high sensitivity as a gift. If more of us were paying attention to the suffering in our world, we could cause less suffering ourselves, intentionally and inadvertently. We would not vote for narcissists with totalitarian tendencies. However, in the midst of this great uncertainty that makes everyone from school children to grandmothers feel ill, my sense of purposelessness has been further revealed and highlighted, which has covered me in a layer of unease and discomfort.

Recently, I received a question, a stronger iteration of the cocktail and Christmas party questions I’ve been receiving since I was 17, that stung, “Have you ever known what you want to do with your life?” I keep saying: I don’t know yet. It’s not clear to me yet. And I seem like an adrift millennial. Though I don’t have clarity about my career path after graduate school, I do not feel adrift. I’m not offshore; I’m in the thick of it, at least intellectually. I have more insight into what will not make me happy in my work life. I watch current events with hawk-like dedication. The piecemeal faith that I happily held at Middlebury has now been fully dissected at Yale, where doubt mixes daily with radically different epistemologies, uncomfortable but generative.

These days, prayer feels fragile; purpose feels unattainable. When our generation must be prepared to inherit literally a world of suffering, what should be the priority? Is joy the antidote to times like these? Should I sacrifice my own happiness for impact? Should I prioritize making money in order to do greater good or should I detach completely from money itself? Should Jack and I move to England? California? Ohio? What I am really asking is: what truly matters most to the world and to me?

My experience of the world has shifted since I left college, not because college was the best four years of my life- because that’s all relative – but because what I thought possible in the world has not been reflected in the world since I fully entered it. Utilities bills and elections, paychecks and taxes, graduate school, what Jack’s professor in his doctoral program called the equivalent of warm champagne,  teaches with realism. Middlebury taught through love. I am not coasting. This chapter of my life is teaching me roughly. It is forcing me to be more unapologetic about what the world needs and what I want in life. Reckonings, both individual and collective, for better or worse, offer clarity.

We live our lives in days and in decades, both senses of time and the needs embedded therein deserve our attention. We live our daily life, in which small pleasures offer relief. Warm food on rainy days feels life-altering. We also live a greater life with a longer trajectory of purpose and connection. Flourishing is like the weaving of a tapestry.  We often cannot reconcile the present with our long-term flourishing because we are constantly changing and the world is constantly surprising us. This week took a lot out of Jack and me. It was a week that called for care, for burgers, red wine, and Van Morrison. This is not a distraction. Hard weeks teach great lessons, too. It is a step towards something truer and greater.

We have twin tasks ahead of us – an idea I return to everyday and have been working on for months – to selve, to become fulfilled, individualized human beings, and to justice, to take our responsibility to help heal the world seriously. I get caught up in worrying, in fearing the unknown, but hope and love have more impact than greed and cynicism. Healthy people, fulfilled people, grounded people, create more stable, kinder, more just  worlds. That’s all I can say for now, with no new job offer, no five-year plan, no new lease in California in hand. Most days, I’m awash with doubt, but everyday, I know I am ready to learn more through love, find greater ease, to claim purpose. That happens in stages, I suppose, not all at once.