The past week has been difficult. Winter has long overstayed its welcome and a four-day weekend has turned into a wash for work. I have projects from last semester that I still have yet to complete, presentations coming up, and books to read that I could not care less about.
Is this feeling normal? Yes, people tell me, your first year of graduate school is supposed to be a miserable, character-building experience. People suited to academic work must find more satisfaction and have greater determination than I do. They feel anxious and overwhelmed, too, but they must have an abiding enthusiasm for their work as well.
One of the worst nights of my life came about on a Thursday in late September four and a half years ago, when I was a junior in college. It was the night I tried to write a short paper for my political philosophy class, only to find that I simply could not think. I became acutely aware of the possibility that I might not be cut out for philosophy, and that I might be deeply mistaken about what I could achieve. I felt I had failed so many people–my parents, my high school mentors, and of course myself. Several weeks later, I broke down crying in my room with my parents. I felt afraid of myself, and in particular the suicidal thoughts that I considered several times that semester.
My junior year declined after that day in September. I had few friends at school, and my grades suffered. I found solace in riding and racing my bike, but you can’t earn course credit from a 5 hour training ride. I had no idea what I wanted to do, where I would go after school, and how to reach out to people for help.
I slowly rebuilt myself over the summer and in my senior year. I interned at a think tank and a publishing house, which reintroduced me to the dignity of scholarship, and wrote a halfway decent senior thesis in political philosophy. I would take a year off from school to investigate another interest, public policy, and then go back to school to get my PhD. It seemed like a tidy plan that could redeem the traumatic lost year.
I am unsure now. I may be too hedonistic and too intellectually mediocre to make succeed as a professional academic. Those who do succeed, of course, may also feel this way about themselves. What hidden variable mark us apart? How would I recognized it?
I am also afraid of what might happen if I have made a mistake. It would be deeply shameful, and the uncertainty frightens me. My current choices may not be optimal, but they at least have a shape and familiarity to them. I can imagine alternatives, but they require an ability to lead a life that I never learned. How does anyone lead a life for themselves today without any scripts, norms, or traditions to lean upon?