As a full-time researcher with zero roommates, I allocate a fair chunk of my energy to loneliness prevention.
For the past 18 months, I have longed for the spontaneous social interactions inherent to student life. Running into people has become woefully inorganic, and equipped with hindsight, I’ve realized the true value of my first year. Part of me would pay incalculable amounts to get it back. At the same time, I’m begrudgingly grateful that I have had such formative losses: I am stronger than ever.
This past s—show of a year has demonstrated how painful existence can be; everything hereafter is contextualized. Certain stresses — particularly academic ones — affect me far less severely. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not immune to fearing for my GPA. It’s just not as salient as fearing for my life. I know what that feels like. I also know what it feels like to tire of life altogether. I’ve been heartbroken, depressed, panicked and numb. I’ve done my suffering. As a result, I am increasingly capable of dealing with life’s challenges. I’m learning slowly, albeit consistently. I don’t give up and I am proud of that.
I am proud to be me.
I have discovered that one’s essential self — the soul, if you will — remains fundamentally unchanged. No matter our age, title, appearance, accomplishments or attitudes, we retain the same essence of being. For me, the greatest challenge lies in allowing that essence to be enough, regardless of external factors like companionship, material, circumstance or validation.
Last November, I met with a psychiatrist who analyzed my anxieties and actions with remarkable insight. The most notable conclusion? My insistent efforts to isolate myself, either socially, academically or professionally, arise from a need for validation. In other words, I need to prove to my family, friends, colleagues, teachers — the whole world, really — that I deserve to exist, that my life is not a waste.
What an empty way to live.
No title or amount of recognition will convince me that my unique atomic composition constitutes something of worth. Only I can solidify that belief. It is my responsibility alone to make peace with my role in the universe. It is this idea that drew me to the book “Mindset” by Carol Dweck.
Dweck explores the manifestations of a fixed versus growth mindset, with the former assuming that ability, worth and talent are static. Metrics that one must defend. For much of my life, this has been my outlook. Even in childhood, I believed that my inherent value was something deterministic, and I had to prove constantly that I was worth a damn. This obsession drove my academic and extracurricular pursuits: I needed to show everyone that I mattered. I worshipped my intelligence, and — just as David Foster Wallace predicted — I spent my time “feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.”
It was exhausting and it bled into my relationships. Because I was wholly preoccupied with my status and success, anyone else’s triumph threatened to reveal my inadequacy. I became bitter, perpetually dismayed by the progress of others, so much so that I impeded my progress. The ultimate irony.
I began to suspect that the only solution was to become so self-assured that I could genuinely appreciate someone else’s victory. Eventually, I had an epiphany: Another person’s win is your loss only if you are playing the same game. The exquisite thing about life? We all have our own games. To that end, we are the only ones truly capable of winning or losing, and that distinction is up to us.
It lies in our mindset.
This is where the growth mindset comes in. Those with the growth mindset view almost all attributes as dynamic, flexible. With enough effort and time, we can improve any skill or quality, with some obvious exceptions like eye color, or number of noses. We are in a constant state of flux, and there is no logic in comparing one person’s infinite capacity for change with another person’s equally infinite capacity. There is no sense in trying to play someone else’s game.
Instead, we should focus on the ways in which we can better ourselves. And when we do check in on our friends and family, we should do so as a source of support. Once we stop competing with each other, we can learn from one another, and that is a far more fulfilling way to live.
I am still new to the growth mindset. I slip up often. That doesn’t bother me, though. I feel far less alone — far more connected — now that the quality of my life and being depend on my attitudes rather than on my circumstances. The game of everyday existence is more enjoyable, and I have the freedom to appreciate both where I want to go in the future and where I am at this exact moment.
For that, I am grateful.