I’m sorry; once again, this won’t be a post about robots or intersectionality; it will not be thoroughly researched or particularly polished or even edited. It seems like these brain-dumps are all I can manage these days, as the heat and the constant feeling of dread in the background zap me of motivation. Yet strangely, it’s also times like this when I am the most motivated to write. It is here and now when writing becomes like drinking water or eating or emptying bowels, something that could be described as a deep psychological need, if not a physical one, not only useful to me but necessary, if useless to anyone else.
There was one night freshman year when I was feeling particularly out of my league and overwhelmed and distressed, and so I stood in the middle of Briggs field at maybe 11pm at night and screamed at the top of my lungs. I could hear myself echo, pinging off the sides of dormitories, and then I heard pinging from my phone — “did someone hear a scream just now?” I don’t know what I was expecting, but of course, in the upper floors of those dormitories you can hear everything on the field, there’s some acoustic effect that causes all the sound to just travel up and up; I never told anyone, except my roommate.
There have been a few moments like that, where I have felt moved to do something insane, some act that might provide some release. Maybe it’s the feeling that, I am upset by the circumstances of my life, so I need to perform some act of radical change. Yet I’m afraid to impulsively perform a real act of change — dropping out of school, quitting a job, buying a one-way ticket somewhere random — and that protective instinct has probably served me well. So in place of something that would really, permanently shake up my life, I settle for an act that would just shake up the day, or maybe the week.
Recently, I feel like I’ve replaced screaming in the middle of a field with bombing my social media profiles. I deleted a facebook account with 11 years of data earlier this summer. Today I deleted all of my tweets and archived all of my Instagram posts. At first I thought it was about taking ownership of my image, but sometimes it also just feels like retreating. “There is a tension in here,” I wrote in my now 1 of only 2 tweets, “between ‘the world does not deserve me’ and ‘I do not deserve the world’”
Now the bad feeling is a combination of many things, and largely that I have been feeling very lost during this pandemic. It’s actually made worse by the fact that I felt like I was thriving beforehand. I took any excuse to throw a party, like a “new couch party” and a “new AC unit party”, and I particularly enjoyed whenever people who’d never met were introduced to each other in my home. I met people at work and in ride-shares and online. I threw meetups from Facebook groups. I wasn’t just an extrovert; I would like to believe I was a sort of keystone friend, someone who really liked to hold space for others to build relationships while building my own. Warmer and more personal than simply “networking”. Every graduate is anxious about how they will socialize post-college — but I discovered that I enjoyed the spontaneity and serendipity of meeting strangers, and introducing others to new people. I felt I was able to build a thriving community.
And then it was swiftly taken away.
Sometimes when it was really rough in college, I used this sort of mental escape hatch that I created. Imagining the worst case scenario is kind of comforting in a way — because if you really imagine it, if you think about it in detail, you might find that the worst case is not so bad. For rough patches in school, the worst case was dropping out. I imagined a life where I moved to Portland, Oregon, and became a barista, although I’d never been to Portland. I would live a private life and probably have like 6 roommates. Maybe I could spend my free time volunteering. Since I was also working through some identity issues at the time, I vowed that during my new Portland barista life I would never disclose my real ethnicity to anyone. I would not give them that satisfaction no matter how they pressed on it. I would force everyone to see me as a person first and foremost, after spending the previous stretch of life having to explain my ethnic heritage within the first 5 minutes of meeting anyone.
Thinking through the worst case with such detail made me feel that, perhaps there was a possibility I could do all that and actually be okay. And then I thought, well, I might as well try to graduate and get a job as an engineer, which might mean fewer roommates. I might as well take advantage of this opportunity I had worked so hard to gain. It was the reverse of ambition in a way. It was thinking about how I could extract the bare minimum amount of happiness and fulfillment from life. Would it be so bad, I wondered, to grow up to be a pretty insignificant person? To not have a start up nor hold a high position at a giant corporation. I could just do something I liked all right during the day and have some fun hobbies at night and do my best to support my extended family. I could contribute to the world in that way, to people immediately nearby and close to home — and across the ocean but close to home in my heart.
The funny thing about being a person eager to please and achieve is that I really set a lot of expectations for myself, but I always imagine them to be external. Did I really deserve to go to an elite institution only to achieve mediocre grades and feel like I “peaked” there, instead of being some dynamic, highly visible future leader? Whether conscious or not, I think I added my alma mater to the list of people I need to make proud in my life, after my family and maybe an entire province in Ethiopia. I have talked about this feeling with some African international friends. There is a narrative about the best and brightest going overseas and never coming back, being a “brain drain” on a country. But those who do come back or try to do something, are they empowered, invested in, supported? Are they set up for success? Is it healthy to place a nation’s expectations on a generation of bright young people or is that a scapegoat for a government failing its responsibilities? Does it instead circumvent a conversation about neocolonialism? Is it right to expect a class of disorganized individuals to provide for a nation, in spite of governing bodies and geopolitical forces? I find many narratives like these are being turned on their head. Do not call young people “inspiring” and do nothing. Do not call people with hardship “strong” and continue to be the cause of their suffering.
Nonetheless, the expectation remains, the survivor’s guilt, the idea of needing to deserve your position. For me, the fact that I was already admitted and even graduated is not enough to feel like I deserve my title as an MIT alumna. I feel, partly because it is true, that I was an investment, and I have yet to provide any positive returns.
And today, feeling like screaming in a field again and taking it out on my online accounts, I find myself wondering what the worst case scenario is.
It’s tough now, because the worst case is not simply about what I do with my life. The ‘worst case’ feels so much less defined. It’s not even an appropriate question anymore, I guess. I feel like I am in the worst case scenario already. I have always been a holistic person, so it’s not as though I am frustrated by my job (which I actually quite like) or my living situation. I guess the one thing I can say is that if winter is as awful as I’m dreading, I’ll be inspired to move somewhere warm.
At least while I ponder this I can again remove the expectation of doing anything capital ‘G’ Great for now, because I simply don’t have the bandwidth or the imagination. I can just be a person. It’s okay to be behind on laundry and household chores. It’s okay to miss the mark on your budget for the month. It’s okay to watch too much TV and just read fiction novels you like instead of something “intellectual”. It’s okay to not eat super healthy all the time.
I think the other reason I have this tendency to “nuclear bomb” my social media accounts is because of the dark side of virality that I faced back in 2019. It feels like taking back something to delete everything. But shortly after writing this, I realized that continuing to be publicly online was also a form of taking back. I get annoyed that mostly negative threads from hacker news and reddit about that thing I did are now the front page of a google search of my name. But in a way, maybe all the content I create has power too, from its sheer volume. It can overwhelm all that, my personal pages and social accounts and websites and the thoughts that I pour out onto the internet. When I’m at my worst, I feel like I overthink myself into despair and worthlessness and oblivion. But when I’m at my best, I feel like I am bursting with ideas and thoughts and full of so much complexity. I feel like my mind has so many different tracks and there are so many things I ponder and consider and have to say. I never stop writing, whether it is public or private or something in-between. I have so many thoughts.
I have a big voice.