You know in Back to the Future when Marty McFly is trying to play “Earth Angel” on the guitar, but his hand starts to disappear because the past is changing and he’s ceasing to exist and he looks like he’s having a heart attack and he falls to the ground. That happened to me when I was twenty-five (minus the guitar and the time travel).
I had a plan. Get my bachelor’s degree, get my master’s degree, get my doctorate, get a job, get tenure, buy a house, find a man, marry said man in said house, procreate, and then die peacefully in my sleep surrounded by my loving and devoted progeny. I devised this plan when I was fifteen. I never thought that it was foolproof; I knew that it was going to be hard. Difficult as it would be, though, I saw it as my life’s inevitable trajectory.
The plan abruptly halted the year I turned twenty-five: the year of the Great Rejectioning. I applied to seven schools. I filled out, paid for, and submitted seven tedious doctoral program applications with my letters of recommendations and intent, and research interests. During the spring, I received seven hard and firm rejection notifications. Rejection on a mass scale bruises your soul as much as your ego. It’s like a rug being pulled out from under you, but then getting the shit kicked out of you while you’re lying stunned on the ground. Pain plus embarrassment plus more pain.
The first few rejections came steadily over two months. Opening my mailbox to find, hold and open a rejection cut a little deeper than opening email at first. But as the stack of no’s increased, it didn’t matter whether I could hold it in my hand or not. Then the rejection letter came. I have a picture of me burning it. I am sitting on the floor of my best friend’s apartment. My long brown hair is disheveled and oily from running my hands through it all day while my friends and I awaited our verdicts. We had driven downtown in the afternoon after classes to run needless errands and distract ourselves. In the photo, my eyes are puffy and I have rubbed all the makeup from my face. I had only cried for a few minutes before my friend took the photo, and the rejection wasn’t to blame—not entirely anyway.
The Dean of Students had sent the decision letters in emails to all of the internal applicants. Always the model of propriety, I emailed the Dean to thank her for sending it. Less than a minute later, she had replied a short note to me:
I’m very sorry about this news.
Tears streamed down my face as I read the single sentence. A sob caught in my chest, and many tumbled after: short clenched ones, like contractions. They quickened, stringing together, and made their way up to my throat. If you had been in another room, you might have thought I was suppressing a laugh. Even when my lips parted and I began to cry, you might still have mistaken it for something other than what it was. It only lasted a minute, but they were big tears the size of raindrops. They rolled down my cheeks heavily as I tried to find the air to breath. But you can’t really see any of that in the photo. The tears were gone. Instead, I coldly and intently glower at the flames as they burn a copy of the rejection letter I printed out especially for the occasion. After comparably small pangs from the rejections by other schools, this was the one that hurt. This rejection broke my heart.
The plan never included a particular school for the doctorate degree. The plan didn’t include locations of any kind, actually. But I had spent two years building a life in Chicago. I had relationships with faculty, staff and my peers. I took their classes, I worked in their coffee shop, I babysat their children. I desperately wanted my life to be there. And I was convinced that, despite the difficulty of admittance, my best chance was the school I was already attending. It probably was my best chance out of all of the schools I applied to, but that wasn’t enough. At first I was eager to blame the school and the ivory-towered bureaucracy of academia. Then I settled back into something I was much more adept at: self-deprecation.You didn’t work as hard as you could have. You went out for drinks with friends so many nights. Or all those other nights you watched TV or went to the movies. You should have been in the library. All those days you slept in, too. You should have woken up early and read. You made bad choices from day one, Georgia. You might have been able to make up for them if you had tried harder. If only you had tried harder. Someone would have accepted you and you wouldn’t be here now, feeling this way, hating yourself. I was right. If I had done all of that, I could have excelled and have had my choice of programs. But that hadn’t happened for two very good reasons.
1. That would have been the two longest and most boring years of my life.
2. I would have hated it.
I knew deep down even then that I wasn’t really doing the work I wanted to in the program. I enjoyed many, if not most, of the classes I took but the ones I loved weren’t in my field of research. I had met with my adviser during the summer between my first and second year to prepare for the application process and develop my research topic. I walked in with an idea that I liked—not loved, but liked. I left the meeting with a new idea that was similar to my original. During the next couple of months, I dug into the topic as best I could and started to take real interest. I spent days at the university library—an ominous concrete building that is architecturally categorized as brutalism—looking up relevant journal articles and books. The fact remained, and remains to this day, that it was never a topic for which I had an undying passion. I had gone with the topic because my adviser made a strong case for it and if I was going to work with him, it needed to be on something he gave a shit about for the very simple reason that doctoral programs are apprenticeships.
That research topic, like the rest of the two-year love affair with red wine that I call graduate school, was imperfect. It was incredibly beneficial to my growth as a scholar and a general human being, but it was imperfect. That school, that program, that topic—they weren’t right for me. But I didn’t know that. At the time, I was just heart-broken. That life—that possible life—in Chicago that I had fallen in love with, or much more accurately, that I had convinced myself I had fallen in love with, told me that it just wanted to be friends. It liked me a whole lot, and thought that I was a great girl, but it couldn’t see a future with me.
After the Great Rejectioning, I started muddling my way through the Kübler-Ross model. The feeling of being lost can probably fall into depression, but I’d like to propose that it have its own distinct stage. For me at least, after months of an acute sense of disorientation, it settled into the dull ache of having no idea how and where I belonged in the world. My life had been grounded in academia and when that foundation crumbled, everything else went with it. We’re talking serious existential meltdown. I was losing my grasp of reality a little. You know who knew a whole lot about existential crises? Descartes. That was a guy who knew where I was coming from.
And so, because our senses sometimes deceive us, I decided to suppose that nothing was such as they lead us to imagine it to be. And because there are men who make mistakes in reasoning, even about the simplest elements of geometry, and commit logical fallacies, I judged that I was as prone to error as anyone else, and I rejected as false all the reasoning I had hitherto accepted as valid proof. Finally, considering that all the same thoughts which we have while awake can come to us while asleep without any one of them being true, I resolved to pretend that everything that had ever entered my head was no more true than the illusions of my dreams…1
That is a fucked up train of thought to get from sometimes I’m wrong to nothing I’ve ever thought is real. That is a crisis—Descartes, man. I get him. Probably not as he intended when he was writing three hundred and seventy-five years ago, but I get him. Deep. In my bones. Descartes lost himself. But then…
…immediately afterwards I noted that, while I was trying to think of all things being false in this way, it was necessarily the case that I, who was thinking them, had to be something…2
He found himself amongst the nothingness. He had completely turned out the light of reality and just like that, the light returned. Everything else was still up in the air—what was real and true—except for him. He, at least, should was something. This was the preamble to Descartes’ most recognizable contribution to philosophy: cogito ergo sum. I think therefore I am. He thinks therefore he is what exactly? Something. He didn’t know what he was, only that he was. He was indefinite, but there all the same.
After my naïve, silly plan turned to nothing, I felt that nothingness. My French philosophical compatriot turned my nothing back into something. My foundation was gone and I was floating in the void, but I was still there. I just needed to find a way to turn my something into some thing. This was the beginning of my quarter-century life crisis.
1. Descartes, René. A Discourse on the Method. Trans. Ian Maclean. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. 28