Flip the Thesis

I sat in front of my Renaissance literature professor as he thumbed a rough draft of my term paper. It was nearing winter break, and fluffy Vermont snow was falling next to the window behind him. He was silent and frowning as he reviewed his notes. Then, he smiled, “You’re actually forming an argument against your original thesis, Sarah. Sometimes, you have to flip the thesis.”

I was used to being patted on the back in these meetings. I would typically leave the English Department floor with “keep doing what you’re doing!” hanging in the air. This time, however, I received a surprising nugget of wisdom that helped me grow as a writer and as a human being. My professor’s advice helped me finish and refine the paper, a paper that I’d felt previously antagonistic towards. His advice revealed to me the ways in which I was bending, folding, and contracting my analysis to fit around the raw material, the data, the text. When I began to craft the paper around the antithesis of my original argument, the evidence and my analysis fit together, and the paper flowed.

This principle has not only served me in writing, but also in life. I am someone who is generally resistant to change. My family often tells the story that when I learned how to walk, I never fell down. I held onto the furniture and the walls and my mother until I knew I could do it on my own without tripping, without falling, until I could take one step after another without clinging. I find it much easier to flip the thesis of a paper than to flip the thesis of something in my life beyond the academy.

Last year, Jack and I were certain we’d be moving from New York to Connecticut. We looked at countless apartments around Yale without finding any that felt like home. We kept debating how commuting would work with Jack’s unpredictable work schedule, while I worried about what returning to school with a full course-load would feel like. We knew our cat would miss our New York window,  where she could sit on the sill and look any birds that landed in our tree square in the eyes. I felt the beginnings of grief at the thought of leaving our little home, the rectangular box of an apartment that we’d poured love and thought into, the first home we shared together and where we’d grown so much as a couple.

So with the data stacked against the argument to which we’d prematurely committed, we flipped the thesis. Although at first I thought this change would be impossible, our landlord would never let us change our minds, etc. We did not move away from New York. I commuted between our home and Yale, staying overnight in a room when necessary. I lived in between places, but every time I heard the key in the lock of our door, I felt comfort, and I knew we had found the right rhythm for that year.

I am more stubborn than most people realize. I am opinionated about politics and have excellent ideas about how things should be in the world and at home (right, Jack?). Many assume that I am demure, at the sight of my delicate bone structure and soft-spoken voice, which is true in some ways, but they often miss the toughness that I possess, the innate toughness that those I love know well. This stubbornness can get in my way and prevent me from noticing what changes might make me happier, that might allow me to be healthier, that might allow things to flow in a way that makes joy possible.

Recently, Jack met me after a job interview. I felt drained and headachy. The interview had gone well, but I knew intuitively it wasn’t the right work environment for me. He began to ask questions, did they discuss what type of work you’d actually be doing on a day-to-day basis? Who would you be directly working with? Did you get along with your interviewer? 

“I don’t know! It will be fine, Jack! Stop asking so many questions,” I quipped in response. What I really meant by my shortness was: I am exhausted, and I don’t feel like I have any other options. I had been working for weeks to get an interview at the organization and to watch my hope for what the experience would be crumble in front of me was deeply disappointing. I did not want to wipe the slate clean and start the process again elsewhere. My defensiveness, however, demonstrated to me that I was clinging to an obsolete reading, that I was trying to contort myself and my hope into a job and environment that wouldn’t support or facilitate the growth I was seeking.

In that instance, it took me longer to flip the thesis, but in hindsight, I see that the cue was there. I intuitively knew I needed to change course by making a sharp left. Making such a change often requires more work after it swiftly moves in and crumbles plans (or outlines) like sandcastles overcome by ocean water.

Many of my friends are feeling adrift and swimming against the current. Nearly everyone I know in their twenties feels confused but looks composed. When I ask a friend who is struggling with a job or a relationship that feels like a terrible fit, even when they have the freedom to make a change, so often she replies, “Oh no, what will everyone think? Everyone will think I am a failure. Everyone will think I did not live up to my potential.” Or she chooses one person, her dad, her boyfriend, her professor, her mom, her cousin who will be so dead set against her truth and her need for a change that she simply can’t start over.

But flipping the thesis, inverting the argument in my own mind, has proved to be a rich and life-giving practice for me. I have realized that sometimes the inverse is truer and more interesting than I’d originally thought. Flipping my perspective on what is compelling, changing the course of my thought, is not, in fact, the same as starting over. Rather, it is continuing along the path that is one’s life and confronting new terrain with different tools, different glasses. Often on the better path, questions, edits, and changes are welcomed.