Saturday, November 13, 2010

Truth hurts--so does rejection

Last night, as I was winding down an intense class-prep session (yes, I do live the high life! But with little kids, evening is really my only work time) when I checked my school email and found a message waiting for me that I'd been anticipating for some time.

See, I promised myself this summer that I'd finally send off parts of my dissertation to see if I could get them published. I didn't quite make it this summer; instead, the first weekend of the semester, I spent an evening cutting down one of my chapters, changing the introduction, and blithely sending it off. I suppose I should have seen the writing on the wall then: arrogance (in my experience) almost always begs for a set-down.

Anyway, I opened the email. Instead of the expected congratulatory line, I found a flat-out rejection. There were reasons given (in retrospect, pretty good reasons), but all I really read was: "you're not good enough for this kind of research. What made you think you could be a scholar?"

I was pretty upset about it. (Okay, I admit it: I cried. I'd like to think that had as much to do with it being late at the end of a long week with not enough sleep--on top of piles of paper, my two-year-old spent a restless night on Thursday with the croup--but it could have been largely hurt vanity).

When I tried to talk it out with my husband later, I came to the realization that part of the reason it hurt is that I still have so much of my identity--and self-value--tied up in the idea of my being a scholar. You know, that little bit of pride that lets me say, I'm not just a mom and a house-wife--I do research too! In high school, as an anxious and not very self-confident teenager, I found a lot of self-respect in being known as the smart one. I thought--wrongly, it appears--that I'd largely outgrown the need for outside validation.

My husband said, "You know, they say that the people who depend on things for their importance probably weren't very important to begin with." I know he meant to cheer me up, but this bit of wisdom actually depressed me more than it helped. Not because it meant that I wasn't important (I'm trying to come to grips with my mediocrity), but because it signaled so clearly how far I haven't come.

In our religious doctrine, we promote the idea that all individuals have inherent worth as children of God. While I know this--and teach my children and my teenage Sunday school students this--apparently I haven't internalized it. While I know my sense of self worth shouldn't depend on anyone's opinion but God's, apparently I don't really believe that. Apparently, there's a part of my teenage self that still exists inside of me, desperate for affirmation that yes, I am smart; that yes, I'm worthwhile because I'm smart. Or scholarly. (Or whatever the coveted virtue of the day is. Mostly it's being smart, because, see, I was raised in a family that privileged intelligence.)

A little bit of reflection put the rejection letter in perspective: the criticisms were valid--I'd cut down my chapter without thinking about the effects of taking a particular case study out of the context of the dissertation as a whole. And I can't be completely worthless at this scholarship thing: I did just get another paper accepted (granted, in a conference proceedings, so not nearly as competitive), and I even won an award for my dissertation. And just like that, I'm off, basing my validity as a person on external markers.

My question is, how can you take knowledge of a principle (like the idea that we are children of God) and turn that knowledge into actual heart-felt belief? Also, is it possible to ever entirely outgrown the need for outside affirmation? If any of my 3 readers has outgrown this need (or knows someone who has), do you want to tell me your secret?


  1. I've been thinking a lot about this question since reading this post yesterday. I wouldn't say I've entirely outgrown this need, but it's loosened its (formerly quite tenacious) hold on me, and I've been trying to think about how that's happened. Unfortunately, I don't think you're going to like the answer!

    Two things come to mind. First, failure. For reasons I still can't really explain, I chose to enter a graduate program for which I was very poorly prepared. The program was in atmospheric science, with the same track leading to an MS and/or PhD. Most graduate students of atmospheric sciences, which is really a subfield of applied physics, come from programs in math, physics, engineering, etc. I had an undergraduate degree in biology, and nowhere near the physics and math background I needed. I didn't realize that the program I'd selected, at UCLA, was one of the most rigorous atmos sci programs in the country (ranked third, after Princeton and the University of Washington). Some of my classmates already had master's degrees from foreign universities, and several were being sponsored by their governments. In other words, I was competing against what my friend refers to as "intellectual freaks of nature."

    And, honestly, I didn't do that hot. I worked as hard as I've ever worked in my life--routinely staying in my campus office until 9 or 10pm. And while I made amazing progress and loved the challenge of stretching my brain, I was not one of the top students. Rather, I was clearly in the bottom half of the class academically, and I earned only one "A" in all of my first-year courses.

    I'll confess it was not pleasant to realize I was just not as talented as some of my peers, but in a way it was freeing. When I realized that even my very best effort would never be enough to rise to the top, I stopped trying to be the best. Amazingly, it didn't shake my self-esteem (too much). I realized I was working with the best and the brightest the world had to offer in my field--and consoled myself with the fact that I was probably still in the top 98%, even if I wasn't in the top 99%. I decided I could live with that. It was still important to me to do well, but I learned to handle setbacks in stride, and consoled myself with the knowledge that I had other, non-scientific talents to offer the world.

  2. (continued... apparently I was too wordy for blogspot, and I'm too tired to edit myself)

    The second thing that really taught me to believe in my intrinsic worth was a really bad episode of clinical depression that started the summer before my second year in grad school. I'd had a couple of depressive episodes before, but I'd never known anything like this. Getting out of bed was hard. Sometimes I'd go to bed at 4pm, because I didn't want to deal with my awake life. I had no appetite, and had to literally force myself to eat. No desire to do anything, really. I cried--frequently--with no provocation, and found it incredibly difficult to concentrate on anything. I still don't know how I summoned up the motivation to do any school work, but I do know that I was in survival mode, in all aspects of my life.

    All of my energy was concentrated on getting through the day, and helping get myself well. I think I mostly stayed in school because I knew I needed something to force me to get up and get dressed, but I cut myself a lot of slack. I lightened my research load. I asked for releases from my most time-consuming church callings (that was hard!). I handed in a resignation for my post as a student officer in our grad student association.

    With so much of my life literally falling apart all around me, the only thing that was real to me was God's love. I can't tell you how surprised I was to find that He still loved me even though I wasn't doing my visiting teaching, wasn't doing regular scripture study, etc., etc. I'd kneel to pray, and couldn't focus my mind well enough to know what to pray for or to understand any answers, but I felt a truly overpowering sense of God's love for me. Everything that had given me the affirmations upon which I'd based my sense of self-worth was gone, and yet I'd never felt so clearly God's love for me.

    I really do believe now that it's far less about what we do than who we are, and Whose we are.

    I don't believe that completely losing control of one's life is essential to gaining this perspective--and I do hope that you find a less painful way--but that's what did it for me.

    Are you sorry you asked? ;)

  3. Laura,

    Thank you so much for sharing, and such sensitive things too--this does help! Writing about it helped too, because it helped me recognize that what was really hurt was vanity--and really, that's not a bad thing to suffer.