At the end of my summer when I was beginning to integrate the death of my grandmother and my breakup I went to visit my sister (and cousin) in Washington. An important part of my newfound feeling of openness was re-introducing myself to everyone in my life, since I felt like I had never truly communicated with anyone before (especially my ‘self’). After 20 or so years of emotional silence my sister, cousin and I talked constantly for ~5 days straight, with some brief breaks for sleep. This post isn’t about what we discussed, but one of the things she did during our conversations was to use rocks (crystals? geodes? mineraloids? naturally occurring solid aggregates?) to illustrate her points. And I can’t lie, at first I thought it was a bit crazy (sorry Sara!), but the more we discussed the more I was able to see how her visual metaphors were unbelievably explanatory.
She had a specific rock to represent me in the stories and hypothetical scenarios she was visually describing. And while I’ve never been a visual person (for example, I’ve always struggled to appreciate art), I understood immediately when I saw it why she had chosen it for me. In other words: I resonated with this crystal. Not with a crazy, spiritual, hippy ideal, but in the sense that it had a structure which was a visual metaphor for what I was going through — it represented ‘me’ in the same way that these words represent ‘me.’ So she let me keep it and use it to explore my ‘self’ in a visual way that I was incapable of doing before.
Fast forward to yesterday: I went to a Donald Trump rally (because, why not), and just seeing the size of the line was worth the price of admission. I walked to the back of this massive snake of ‘deplorables,’ as they call themselves, and I started to wait — just another human in a crowd of Trump supporters. The people around me chatted away about Obama causing Brexit, Hillary belonging in prison, and all the wonderfully nonsensical things that Trump says. While a past me would have intellectually bitch-slapped the shit out of every single one of those ‘deplorables,’ new ‘me’ loved every second of it. A very friendly woman in front of me said something that entirely validated my newfound vision of the dualistic, logical/emotional nature of everything. She said:
“We’re not gonna change our mind just cause you’re saying whatever you’re saying!”
This crowd was pure emotion. They didn’t care about the words in Trump’s speech, or the details of his foreign policy plans, or even how he was going to make Mexico build a wall that no one wants. They just wanted to feel. And not just to feel, but to feel connected to the people around them — but more importantly, to feel connected to themselves.
So I waited in line for about 2 hours listening (and not bitch-slapping) while I read “The Book” by Alan Watts. It was a good time. Eventually I made it to the security tent at the front of the massive line. Everyone had to take all the stuff out of their pockets and walk through a metal detector. Weirdly, they weren’t even checking if people had tickets or not, it was a first-come first-serve ordeal. So I remove my phone, my keys, my wallet, and this rock from my pockets and put it all on the table while I walk through the metal detector. But the lady checking purses and examining pocket contents picks up my rock, looks me straight in the eyes and says:
“You can’t bring this in.”
So I laughed and said, “that’s funny”
But she kept her dead-serious expression and repeated:
“You can’t bring this in. You could throw it.”
I was caught off guard so I replied, “you know I could throw my phone, or stab someone with my keys, right?”
But she was extremely understanding and said:
“Go and hide it outside and come back to the front — quickly!”
But I didn’t want to. This seemingly insignificant piece of rock was more important to me than seeing Trump speak, or being a part of a Trump rally. So I walked out.
The people immediately behind me were turned away because the building was at capacity (since they weren’t checking tickets). So I was the last person to walk in the rally, and I walked out voluntarily and very satisfied with my experience. I spent some time walking to the back of the line, which at this point had more than doubled in size since I got there (even though there was no room in the rally and it started in less than 5 minutes). I spoke to some protesters, and the protesters protesting the protesters (they didn’t know at what point they stopped being protesters and started just being Trump supporters). But it took me a bit to realize that my experience was a perfect metaphor for my PhD program.
I have decided that I will be leaving without a PhD (unless they can magically grant me one in the next year). And of course, many people in my life are resistant to this idea for many reasons (and I truly appreciate that — thank you all!!!)
how can you leave after getting so far into the program?
how can you walk away with “nothing?”
can’t you just switch labs?
find a new boss that better suits you?
But it’s just like my experience at the Trump rally. I went to have a good time, to experience something new. I waited for a while and enjoyed the line, doing my best to hide my feelings about Trump. When I got to the front and they let me in I was ready to keep going, but they needed me to hide a part of myself that I didn’t even know I had! Maybe when I came out of the rally it would have been in the same spot I left it, or maybe not. But either way, I knew and felt immediately that I didn’t really care about the rally, and I didn’t really care about Trump. The only thing that mattered to me was me.
And that’s just the thing — I was only getting a PhD because I wanted to have fun and experience a new, more rigorous way of thinking. I “waited in line” by taking classes that were ridiculously easy for me and rotating through amazing labs with amazing people. When I got to the ‘security checkpoint’ of my qualifying exam I took everything out of my pockets and I passed through the metal detector to pass my exam. But now that I’m on the other side they tell me that I need to leave a piece of myself behind in order to continue on…
My happiness, my fulfillment, my sense of ‘me’
And I truly appreciate this fact — it has made me realize that I had never seen this piece of myself before, but when I’m forced to think about leaving it behind I value it with my life! And I have had a wonderful time and met some awe-inspiring people. I got what I came for, so even if I walk away without the letters “P” “h” “D” (without seeing Trump) I don’t care! I’m happy with what I have.
I love my boss and I love my lab. I love all the people and all the work that gets done here. But I just can’t do it for myself. In fact, I’ve never done it for myself. It has always been 100% and entirely because of his motivation to cure spinal cord injury. It’s not that I don’t want to cure diseases and make the world a better place… But my role is much, much different than this.
And I feel extraordinarily privileged to have had the experience at all! To have been given the opportunity to walk into the rally (unlike the people directly behind me) and to have the option to walk out. But I want to share this privilege by starting a business for “Personal growth and motivation consulting and life coaching services in the field of fulfillment.”
“But won’t a PhD help you with this new role you do belong in?”
Yes, of course. Credentials are everything to everyone. But a part of my new role is to destroy that notion; to spread the idea that we are all capable of anything. And it won’t be easy, but having a PhD won’t make it any easier — it’s just a crutch to get people to trust me. But earned trust is significantly more valuable. While I’m not done chasing the letters I need to follow a different motivation for now, and that motivation is helping other people do the same! And more than that, if someone said they wanted to go to see Trump speak, you wouldn’t take them to a Clinton rally… If you truly want to do something, you don’t do something else!
I thought that studying the brain would help me understand consciousness, but of course this is a farce. Knowing about the brain doesn’t teach you any more about consciousness than any other subject on earth. Because everything we do is studying consciousnesses — we quite literally cannot escape this fact. So instead of being a philosopher my whole life I am going to turn the knowledge I have into a functional skill.
I’m happy to continue taking criticisms about my decisions (because that doubt ensures we are thinking about our actions), and I want to know my flaws.
But I’m finally ready to accept my feelings…
“[I’m] not gonna change [my] mind just cause you’re saying whatever you’re saying!”