living in Limbo (...OR An Open Letter To those unsure about what comes after the tassel is turned left)
If I had to describe myself, pragmatic dreamer would be one of the many oxymorons that come to mind. I live somewhere in a gray area where my mind shoots for the stars and believes that amazing things are possible but is very aware of the work required to get there and the possibility that things may not go as perfectly as planned.
The day of my graduation is oddly unlike most of the other significant days of my life. When important things happen, I’m used to being so succumbed by emotion that it’s difficult to remember exactly what occurred. I can usually only remember how I emotionally felt and soon enough after replaying it in my mind, or retelling it to friends or writing about it a million times over, those initial feelings slowly become usurped by an analysis of the entire event that I’ve now formulated and solidified in my mind.
On my graduation day though, I remember practically everything with remarkable detail. Maybe that's because throughout most of the pomp and all of the circumstance, I felt void of a lot of emotion. I was proud to walk across the stage, to take photos with my glossy diploma, and to receive praise from my loved one's, but nothing overwhelmed me until I packed my very last bag and realized that I would soon be leaving forever a place that I spent a really important 4 years in. A place that I loved and hated, that I was in awe of and feared, and that afforded me experiences which ultimately helped me develop into a woman that I came to be very proud of. I was surprisingly a little heartbroken but wow, I thought, I really accomplished something here. It was not too long after that moment however, that this revelation came to a screeching halt. After piling into my uncle's van with the rest of my family and rolling out of the campus gates, a looming banner wishing ¨Congratulations Class of 2016” almost completely fading into the distance, I mindlessly checked my email and found a new letter confirming my fear that I had been rejected from my dream fellowship-- my final option.
Despite the huge accomplishment that I had just achieved and had only moments before finally allowed myself to settle into, the only things I could now feel were anxiety, fear and embarrassment. I was leaving college and moving back in with my mom, returning to my old room, with no summer plans, no job and no conceivable next steps. I couldn't help but feel that I had backtracked. Senior year is filled with so much finality that it can heighten the feelings of self-doubt when you don't have a clear plan for what's next. The ceremonies and the goodbyes makes it feel as if everything is ending so when nothing new is beginning for you personally, it creates a state of limbo-- a state that 15+ years of consistent schooling has left many of us ill equipped to navigate.
Our society doesn't teach us how to take the time to pause very often-- it rarely even acknowledges that such pauses are necessary. In face, pauses feel especially gratuitous when we’re told (or when we convince ourselves) that we’re already behind in the race and should be moving twice as fast as opposed to taking breaks-- even if those breaks might just help us decide what we want and which direction will be best to get there.
In the fall semester of my senior year, a notable religious leader and civil rights activist visited our campus to deliver a keynote lecture and lingered around afterwards to speak with students. When he asked the inevitable question of ¨what will you be doing after graduation?¨, I delivered my elevator speech on how and why I had yet to solidify my plans. To my surprise, he scoffed and told me that “You don’t come to Wellesley just to graduate without a plan”. In addition to being just plain insulting (and false) I read there to be another even more pernicious idea imbedded in his statement. In his response, I heard, “you, as a Black student should know better than to go to a prestigious college and leave without a sense of direction”.The implications were that I was squandering an opportunity that I could not afford to squander by virtue of my race and that not having a concrete post-graduate plan meant that I lacked direction-- that I was frivolous with my time and my tuition. There’s a lot to say about that encounter but to be brief, it didn’t make me feel much better about myself and if anything, it reinforced the feelings of failure that were already developing in my mind.
Fast forward almost a year later and I’m reflecting on what that time in limbo taught me and how much farther I am now, if at all. A tool that has proven to be a useful litmus test is actually something that i learned at my current job (which I started after a few months of ¨pausing¨). One of the many things that we look for in new hires is whether they have an internal locus of control, a concept that was new to me but that I’ve quickly grown very fond of. Essentially it’s the idea that a person should hold themselves accountable and responsible for the projects and tasks that they are engaged in. When a situation goes awry do they recognize the role they played in it or do they blame every possible external factor?
I’ve realized that I my internal locus of control is pretty strong, and at times, in my personal life at least, it can be so hefty that I place an unhealthy amount of blame on myself. If I'm not careful and mindful of it, I can fall into a place of hopelessness when my best efforts don’t yield the results that I desired. There’s a balance, I’m learning that has to be kept between knowing that it is our own primary responsibility to manifest the lives that we want and still believing that fate exists and can bring your life together in ways that are inexplicable and ultimately may be beyond our control. It’s the task of first being a dreamer and then being a doer.
We have to allow people the time to dream and decide what they want from their lives and be open to the fact that for many of us, those decisions aren’t solidified in only 4 years, or 5, or 6 or however long it takes someone to finish their degree or maybe even decide to go to school in the first place. While often well-intentioned, the questions of “what are your plans for next year?” or “so, what do you do?” may be best replaced with “what do you want to do?” and “who (not what) do you want to be?” Perhaps then even the people whom appear to have it all together can have the chance to reflect on whether their immediate plans align with the future they most desire for themselves. Maybe they’ll even realize that they haven’t yet considered what they envision for that future beyond the superficial contours of what success “should look like”.
When people now ask me what I’m doing or what I’ve learned this past year, I could say a lot, but ultimately it boils down to the fact that despite the overwhelming self-doubt, anxiety and fear that I leveled upon myself while in ¨limbo¨, I’m now grateful to have been given that time to pause. Im also more than grateful to have had the luxury of being able to get the most out of that pause without worrying about certain pressures that come with “real” adulthood. None of this is to say that you shouldn’t accept a job or a fellowship or any other offer if you feel on the fence about it- for a lot of people declining an opportunity may not be realistic or feel particularly wise. This is however, to say that if opportunity doesn’t come immediately knocking at your door, you’re still going to be alright and maybe it's fate giving you an incredible chance to explore what it is that you actually want, to try new things that you would have never considered and begin to cultivate a deeper relationship with yourself.
No matter where you are on your journey, the fact that you made it to the the end of this finish line (one of many) merits a celebration of what you've done. Now, let yourself dream for a bit and choose the next obstacle that you want to conquer-- the rest, is within your control.