Revisiting rejections

Many, many years ago, when I was far more active on this blog than I am today, I used to write music reviews, book reviews, day-to-day updates, anything that I wanted to just get down and out there. A part of me misses the lack of self-consciousness with which I treated my own writing. The other part of me knows that at least the stuff I put out has a some sort of quality control restraining it, so it’s not worth belaboring the point.

That said, I find myself in a moment where I can’t help but think about a fairly common type of blog-post I used to put out: the college acceptance tracker. I applied to undergraduate programs twice. The first time, during Year 12, when I was only 16 and rearing to go out into the world. I was confident that I was ready, but even with the rejections I received, I was convinced against going to college on the grounds that I had a lot more to show for myself than my 16 years would allow me to. Begrudgingly, through tears, I agreed to see out the entirety of my A Levels. It was the best decision I had ever made up until that point in my life. It’s amazing what an extra year can do for you – and how much more fun college is when you’re actually 18 at the time of starting.

But I digress. Back then, while waiting to hear back from colleges, I would put out blog-posts reporting whether I had been accepted or rejected. I would describe how I felt about the application decision. I tend to be embarrassed about nigh-on everything I did when I was a teenager, but I look back at those memories with some fondness. I was so excited for the next big chapter of my life that I was desperate to share my journey with everyone, even if no-one read my updates.

This isn’t to say I’m going to start doing that with my grad school applications. I played out the cuteness of that experience back when I was a teenager. It isn’t quite as endearing when you’re a 24-year-old adult woman with a job and loans. But I can’t help but note some of the parallels. Whether consciously or not, I ended up applying to 9 programs. And whether I’d like to admit it aloud or not, there are certain schools I’m applying to out of a sense of obligation, not necessarily because I see a future there. Even though I submitted all my applications a few weeks ago, I can’t help but regret some of the choices I made. At the very least, this time I’m not investing my whole self in one school, but even having a “top choice” is terrifying to me. I’m ready to have my heart broken, if only to realize the best place for me is somewhere else – but I’m not ready to have my heart broken several different ways, only to realize that there is no best place for me right now.

I’m not the ideal candidate on paper. My GRE quantitative score leaves about 25 points to be desired. I don’t have a masters degree already. But there is so much I want to do, and only so many years to do those things in.

In 2005, the Kashmir Earthquake hit some parts of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kashmir and India. I was in my home in Lahore, lounging on the couch and watching cartoons when the couch began to shuffle forwards. The french windows of our TV room rattled, and I immediately knew: zalzala. I rallied my mother (I feel like I’ve always played the role of the rallier in my family), who bade me go outside. I stood in our porch nervously, watching my grandfather’s jeep sway as the quake continued.

Reports of the destruction, lives lost, witness testimonials equating the earthquake to endtimes poured in. Lahore was spared the worst of it, but there was devastation in northern Pakistan. I was nervous all day. I once fled to the garden, wearing only a bath robe, because I felt an aftershock. I was only 10, and this was my first true brush with a natural disaster. My uncle and aunt, who were visiting when the earthquake happened, pulled me aside. They had understood the crux of my fear: I was confronting mortality. For better or for worse – and now that I’m 24, I have to say, maybe they were a bit premature on this – they explained to me that death comes to all of us. Some people sooner, some people later. The best thing to do is embrace mortality and hope we are ready for our death when it comes, however it comes.

As a good little Muslim girl, I tried to take that lesson to heart. I succeeded. Since then, I have been cavalier about death – at least, my own death. I harbored fantasies of being killed for my political stances. My lot in life was to live spectacularly and die spectacularly. In retrospect, I’m shocked at how well I took to that. It’s only now that I’m an adult that I realize the dangers of living that way, and the problem with learning that lesson so early in your life.

Here’s the biggest problem with that: I still feel the need to live faster, succeed harder, work longer, plan farther. Life isn’t long enough, so the sooner I live spectacularly, the better; that when death, comes I’m ready for it.

Didn’t expect this to be about dying, did you? Neither did I.

So now when I see the first two decisions regarding my PhD applications turn out to be rejections, I am confronted with the fleeting nature of my life. Even though I know that a year can be as long or short as you make it, even though there’s a chance my generation will be the longest-lived generation thus far. But there’s far too many people for whom that will not be the case, who will die young or unduly because of messes I’m still not ready to fix, or in a position to help avoid.

It’s never been about my dying – it’s been about others’ deaths or ill-living folk while I am still trying to get somewhere. I feel gripped by an urgency of purpose that I didn’t feel as intensely when I was 16 or 17. I’m trying to remember that the road to success is paved with rejection, and also that success is so entirely relative that I shouldn’t measure myself by constructed metrics. I’m also trying to remember that haste is a great way to corrupt oneself. And, sometimes, when I’m being thoughtful, I try to remember what my boss once told me: you can believe you were put on earth to serve, as long as you also remember that you were put on earth to eat pizza and hang out with your friends.

But every rejection makes me feel like I’m not actually ready. And that means I need more time to get ready. If climate change does come for my throat before I am ready, what will I have to show for it?

This is all a dramatic response to 2/9 rejections thus far, but I’ll let the quality control falter momentarily. If there is a lesson or moral here, and I always try to find one, I guess it’s this:

Maybe don’t turn a natural disaster into a moment to condition a 10-year old into accepting mortality?

Forgiveness, can you imagine?

WhatsApp Image 2018-05-04 at 2.18.54 PM
There aren’t too many pictures of me from graduation, but I think this one – overwhelmed, holding way too many things, but so happy – is a pretty good summary of both graduation and my college life in general.

As of May 4th, 2018, I am the proud owner of a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and International Affairs. If you’ve been following this blog since its very inception in 2010, then this might be tripping you up as much as it tripped me up. I still have vivid memories of giving college acceptance updates when this blog was still Neiha Thinks This. To be done, to have crossed out the erstwhile biggest item in the To-Do List of my life seems bizarre.

Of course, in the process, comparatively smaller items on my micro to-do list fell by the wayside (including my plans to put up a blog post every month), but it’s hard to give myself too much of a hard time about it when I am in possession of the most expensive piece of paper I will ever hold. It wouldn’t be very poetic to let my graduation month pass without a blog post reflecting, properly, on at least some facet of the past five years. (NOTE: It is now June 3rd. I let May slip by without finishing this blog. Ha ha.)

I’ve been afraid of my last semester of college since I first stepped foot in Northeastern’s campus and realized I was home. Which is weird – being afraid of a milestone seems absurd. I couldn’t wait for my high school graduation so that I could be done with that chapter of my life but at the same time, those two milestones aren’t even worth comparing. My high school experience was not great. I had friends, many of whom I’m still close to, and saw some successes but I was always held back either by teachers who called me “too passionate” or resource crunches. I could never pursue knowledge to the extent that I wanted to, short of fighting my way into taking an independent study A  Level. My interests were belittled. And when I tried to leave high school behind in favor of greener pastures, I had my character, intelligence, and values attacked by the one teacher I was still in contact with and looked up to. I have no qualms about discussing this now: that messed me up. After working through this with my therapist, it has been concluded that most of my impostor syndrome and self-flagellation can be attributed to That One Teacher. Which is upsetting, because said teacher is why this blog exists in the first place.

I guess that’s a good transition into what aspect of my college life I want to reflect on this time: forgiveness. Specifically, learning how to forgive myself. While at therapy the other day, talking about some or the other requisite self-image issues I still have, we hit upon a bit of a revelation. I still hold on to the naive belief that, at 23, I shouldn’t have body image issues anymore. It was a hope that persisted throughout my teenage years. With age, all of this would go away. And of course it doesn’t. In my particular case, we noted that a lot of my issues that have roots in childhood often get triggered by specific events. None of my issues are ever in isolation, and if they flare up, it’s because something else has flared up concurrently that exacerbates the former. And then the revelation: I immediately realized that these issues aren’t just disparate, they’re parts – “tendrils” is how I described them – of the same large behemoth: how I see myself in relation to where I want to be. Each tendril is situational, variables that act up and inform the central question: am I on my way to becoming the person I want to be? It seems silly, but after months and months of working through each tendril in isolation, having a larger framework to work against was a pretty major breakthrough.

And, of course, it all goes back to ambition. Sometimes I think mine has gone stale or has paled in comparison to the people around me. That’s not the case; my ambition is stronger than it’s ever been. The two biggest driving forces behind my ambition have always been service and spite. The former is decidedly more noble than the latter and will always be more important – nothing I do matters if it doesn’t help in some capacity. The latter grew in size and force over the years, reaching its peak in college, but it has always been there. It’s always played a bit of a tempering role to the complacent, afraid side of me. My successes in high school despite the odds? Spite: if I can’t succeed despite the odds, what’s the point? Fighting my way back from a D in economics? Spite: “he looked at me like I was stupid, I’m not stupid.” Deciding, once and for all, that I will get a PhD? Spite: no one ever gets to call me a pseudointellectual again. And I don’t get to believe it.

And here’s the thing, a lot of my spite is intrinsic too. I live to spite myself because at the end of the day, I’m my worst enemy for these things. I treat myself like absolute trash. I’m the one that allows myself to listen to people who want to put me down because in my heart, I believe that part of service is taking all criticism on face value and becoming “better” for it. The roots of that are in the one trait I fear most in myself, arrogance. A “trait” that came out of insecure teenage bravado – forgivable! And yet, unforgiven. If arrogance is self-assurance without limits, then I would strive to be the opposite of that.

I think spite is a necessary driving force. For me, it forces me to take what I judge as a failing on my part and reevaluate it. It forces me to for once in my life give myself a break, because I can actually do the things I am told I can’t do. I spite myself so as to learn to forgive myself. Arrogance is bad, yes, but I’ve never actually been arrogant, I was just called that by someone at the age of 13 and it stung enough to stick for ten whole years.

I have so much I still haven’t forgiven myself for, from the banal to the serious. The last five years I’ve been at college are pockmarked by those moments. I think back on them and my immediate urge is to rip my own skin off. To blame yourself so much that your instinct is violence towards yourself? The cruelty of it all.

I want more than anything to be of use. I don’t need to be lauded, I don’t need to be appreciated, I just want to help and create and cultivate and study. Any moment where I have been less than those things is paramount to failure in my book. And yet, I graduated and I graduated pretty dang well. I have made life-long friends, I have been a mentor, I have learned so much, and I have even been able to help in that process. More than any other time in my life, I did the best I could and now that it’s over, I’m so proud of myself.

I think that might make it easier for me to forgive myself one day.


On a lighter-ish note, what comes next after the above detailed milestone, you say? Waiting for the US government to get back to me about whether or not I can stay in this country for the next year! Finding a full-time job! I have a part-time gig as a research assistant which I am so excited for and which will help tide me over until I can get a full-time job with benefits. I’m also ~paranoid~ so I don’t want to give more details on that until I get said government approval.

Over the next year, I will be studying for and taking the GRE and applying to graduate programs in political science/international affairs with a focus on ethnic conflict and global governance…and I think most of them will be PhD programs. I’m about 80% sure on that. That’s the most sure I’ve been about anything with the letters P, H, and D in it! I will also be fine-tuning my research article on sex trafficking in the EU and hopefully getting it in front of a panel of academics to get feedback. I’ll try my best to add updates here but they might go to LinkedIn first.

If you’ve been following my blog for a while now, thank you for sticking with me despite my unreliable upload schedule. It means a lot to me!

Short Note: Isolation Abroad

This tree is a metaphor or something, I don't know.

I have always been hyper-aware of my ambition, to the point that I am constantly appraising myself vis a vis others’ accomplishments. I wish I could say with confidence that it is benign appreciation, and a desire to better myself. I’ve recently started accepting it for what COULD be: envy, a truly exhausting emotion to boot. What worries me now is not knowing whether my ambition comes from a place of sincerity or whether it is spurred purely by envy, a desire to be better-than-x. I am perfectly willing to admit that this could be me jumping to conclusions and selling myself short, but trying to be mindful of how I react to others’ success is a good practice regardless.

That is just the backdrop for what I really want to talk about: isolation. My ambition, whatever it may stem from, has led me to try to pursue original research during my intern ship in the Netherlands. I knew going in that I was overextending myself, but I was ready and willing to put in the work. But putting in the work requires sacrifice, and it’s one thing to overextend yourself in a familiar setting, with familiar comforts, but in a new country? I feel like I’m coming undone. I’ve been here almost two months – wild! – and I’m worried that I’m losing the nascent relationships I had established with people I have met thus far. I have to apologize for my absence at social events. I have to renege on promises I’ve made because a deadline is coming up and there is more work to be done than I expected. I can’t make plans even weeks in advance because – given the nature of my research – I don’t even know if I’ll be in the country then. I don’t fault the people around me for making plans without me. I totally get it. But the feeling of isolation it spurs has me asking whether my plans and ambitions are worth it.

That might be an overreaction; of course it’s worth it, conducting original research is a personal goal I’ve wanted to accomplish since I started college, and my research is on a topic I think is immensely important, that I care about deeply. I have somehow acquired funding for it, so it’s not even a question of if anymore. I literally have to see it through. But the prospect of staring down three more months like this, filled with half-commitments and apologies, is daunting nonetheless. I hope I can strike a balance between abating this isolation and still getting my work done. If not, I hope I have the emotional fortitude to be able to weather it.