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?

“I promise there’s a reason I’m flushing my hair!” and other superstitious concerns

“I can’t help but feel that this is my fault.”

My best friends, my mother, and my therapist have all heard me say some variation of the above sentence. This tends to be in response to some kind of bad news, and no matter how much physical distance is between the epicenter of the bad news and myself, I always find some way take responsibility for the ensuing tremors. Lip-biting, hand-wringing, that sentence is both an admission of guilt and a desperate need for reassurance. Usually, the response is “Oh my god Neiha, stop!” or “Shut up. Stupid chit. (angry cat emoji)” or “Now what could make you think that?” from my best friends, mother, and therapist respectively.

The former two usually nip it in the bud. Can’t blame them. But my therapist’s open-ended question gives me – stammering, probably shaking – pause.

What could make me think that?


I’ve alluded, previously, to my superstitious inclinations, but I have never fully explored how my superstitions came to be and what role they play in my life. As with most things, I can attribute a lot of my beliefs to my Pakistani upbringing. My parents never reinforced this, being scientists, but it’s hard not to internalize what society tells you.

South Asians, in general, are an unfathomably superstitious lot. To ghair folk, that may seem absurd and yes, it totally is, but it is also as much a part of our culture as our food or clothing. Our superstitions seem to inform societal hierarchies, biases, behaviors, upbringing, schooling, even where we live. Our superstitions serve as the lens through which we perceive the world. We are morbidly fascinated with what we are, in theory, supposed to be afraid of. A lot of our superstitions stem from religion – such as reciting verses from the Quran to protect oneself, though Islam is most certainly not the only religion that guides superstition – but largely, our superstitions stem from time immemorial and have been distorted depending on the family that the superstition has circulated in and throughout generations. Even the most highly-educated members of the gentry are wont to follow some neighborhood spiritual healer. However, it is difficult to properly research the roots of South Asian – let alone Pakistani superstition – due to said distortion and lack of academic research into the topic. So for the purposes of this exploration, I will be relying largely on my memory and the iteration of superstitions that I was exposed to.

I grew up with a taweez around my little neck. Fairly innocuous, a taweez is a small leather pouch worn like a locket, with the pouch containing a verse from the Quran that is said to protect you against the evil eye. Almost every kid my age had a taweez, sometimes even older kids – but while the taweez soon disappeared from around my neck, the phenomenon it was trying to keep at bay was a ubiquitous power in my life and in that of so many others. The evil eye – nazar, in Urdu, which literally just means sight but as a noun and duly capitalized in English transliteration takes on a much more sinister meaning – has become a well-known concept by now in mainstream culture, having been attributed to a variety of cultures even outside Islamic countries. (As a quick aside, I found it funny as a kid that whenever people used to go to Turkey, they would bring back the eerie blue variations on our taweez. If nothing else, I was impressed at the utility of the evil eye: a souvenir, a protective totem, and very on-trend for the time. Besides, a literal evil eye to ward off the evil eye in addition to our own cultural attempts at warding it off? Beyond extra). For a lot of people, wearing the evil eye or hand of Fatima/hamsa as an accessory might be nothing more than cute, exotic jewelry, but it garners both an eye-roll and genuine approval from me. Hey, intentional or not, you’re protecting yourself I guess.

The evil eye is simply, intentional or otherwise, the result of someone casting a jealous or malevolent gaze on someone. This in turn means something bad happens to you; you get hurt, your finances take a hit, etc. At worst, the evil eye can be attributed to black magic (kala jadoo, a most Pakistani fear). The reason children especially are kitted out with a taweez is that younger children are quick to trust, and don’t necessarily know how to protect themselves from the evil eye; as such, adults must pick up the slack. In fact, pretty much whenever I get hurt, there’s always someone around to say, “Nazar lag gayi Neiha ko” (lit. Neiha got hit by nazar. Also, I’m 22 and this still happens). The process of avoiding the evil eye is a lesson in humility; you ascribe any talent, beauty, accomplishment, etc, to God’s will – “Mashallah, you look beautiful.” God wills it, and thus, can apparently shoulder the burden of malevolence.

Now that I think about it, the lesson is less about humility and more about displacement of responsibility. Lack of humility only attracts malevolent intent, so you make God deal with it? That doesn’t seem completely fair.

There were other superstitions: not stepping on a pillow or you’d give your mother a headache, not stepping over someone who was reclining on the ground or they wouldn’t grow taller, making sure shoes weren’t strewn around with the soles pointing heavenward, getting rid of fallen hair and nails in a way that they couldn’t be collected by evil sorcerers (for real)…in addition to more paranormal fears, for example, that isolated, mountainous – generally veeraan – places are usually breeding grounds for jinn-bhoot (a pretty general term for any big evil phantasmal types), that resting under a tree during the night was a sure-fire way to get yourself possessed by a jinn and subsequently exorcised, or that any number of houses were haunted and that houseguests of the spirit variety could be kept away with a huge, wrought-iron “Mashallah” affixed to the facade of your house.

These are just the ones I remember off the top of my head. I remember thinking that I wasn’t completely convinced by these superstitions. I used to pride myself on that. Sure, I was afraid of jinn stories, but what Muslim kid/adult/old person in their right mind isn’t? I had no fears regarding giving my mother a headache by stepping on a pillow, or of stunting someone’s height. Besides, most people my age were tall enough and should have been grateful for what they already had that I didn’t.

It’s only really in retrospect that I realize how many superstitions I actually did internalize. I avoid lingering for too long under trees at night. I think part of my gung-ho desire to live in a city stems from avoiding the aforementioned veeraangi. But I didn’t realize just how much of the more ridiculous stuff I had internalized until, last year, a friend caught me flushing some hair I had pulled out of my hairbrush down the toilet…

That was a very strange cultural quirk to explain.

But apart from the more concrete superstitions, there is a general spirit behind superstitions that is just straight up part of being desi: this greater sense of culpability, that everyone is capable of causing harm even if they don’t necessarily intend to. It is as victim-blaming as it sounds, that people can also just put themselves up for spiritual harm – that’s a pretty toxic mentality, but it’s one that I observed in myself a lot following my burgeoning anxiety. Humility is one thing, but to be actively deserving of malevolence is kind of an alarming concept to internalize.

But as it turns out, superstition is an easy vehicle to transition into when you already have anxiety. So what could make me think that something horrible that happened so far away and is, by all accounts, unrelated to me, is actually my fault?

I expect something bad to happen after things have been going well for some time. Living in a country where people don’t necessarily say “Mashallah” a lot doesn’t help that fear; but even so, if I receive bad news following a spate of good luck, I immediately blame myself for not being humble enough. I caught someone’s nazar, but it’s ultimately my own fault, surely. Something bad happens at home? Well, that’s my fault for not being an upstanding Muslim, or for staying out too late, or for becoming too self-confident.

Okay, but what does this have to do with anxiety?

According to Kierkegaardian philosophy, “anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.” Rather than feeling as if you can do whatever you want, anxiety feels much like the way standing at the edge of a particularly long drop does – except near-constantly. The dizziness of freedom also means it’s difficult to ascribe responsibility to anything. Life just is. But life can’t simply just be; life has to have a rhyme or reason. Surely, that’s what religion is too, a desire to make sense of the dizziness of freedom, to organize yourself around something rather than constantly face off against a precipitous drop. But if existentialism is to embrace the drop, then superstition is the exact opposite. To be superstitious is to analyze every drop within an inch of its life and to assess where you stand in relation to it and – well – how that drop could actively make you and everyone around you suffer. Superstition isn’t absolution or relief or even order the way religion can be. Superstition is, as the wonderful Mashed Radish describes, all about excesses, too muches, over-s, supers – so it is excessive, too much, over-, super-absolution. In short, it is a solid crutch for anxiety to lean on and reinforce its grip on your gut and your brain. It is self-imposed punishment, it is responsibility where no responsibility needs to be taken, it is guilt in the guiltness. If anxiety’s evolutionary role is to heighten ones fight-or-flight reflex, superstition’s evolutionary role becomes what makes you stand there, pointing and screaming as something starts gnawing at your leg.

It’s hard enough balancing your identity if you moved from a more communal society to a thoroughly individualistic one. You feel guilty about something at any given point. But to be superstitious on top of that, and to have anxiety on top of that? Might as well have a flip-flop dangling around your neck that you can self-flagellate with. It’d be a quicker job.

For me, superstition reinforces my self-loathing. If nothing is immediately around to be responsible for x terrible thing that has just happened, well, then it’s my fault. If I bear a cross on my back, it is one carved out of a heinous wood comprised of both anxiety and superstition. Add to that cross various socio-cultural expectations (both communal and individualistic), burdens, pressures, etc, and it’s no wonder that I had to go the ER for back problems this past June (for real).

Does this answer my therapist’s question? At least in part, yes it does. And, well, you don’t have to but if you wouldn’t mind, throw in a Mashallah at me every now and then, yeah?