So, it happened.
I graduated in the height of luxury, in my living room, in my husband’s graduation robes from our undergraduate institution, in a free baseball hat that at least had my grad school’s name on it. It was a wonderful day, surrounded by at least some family (my parents-in-law and my husband), and I was able to bask – for a little while – in my achievements.
I resolved to not leave Fletcher feeling regretful. I think I did a good job of realizing that goal. I strengthened my skills in and knowledge of existing interests, developed new skills and interests, and figured out my next steps. I was one of two elected student speakers at my commencement (you can watch my speech at the link)- a fact that still brings tears to my eyes. I was awarded civic honors and a prize for outstanding student of international law. I made incredible friends, from whom I learn every day.
And I think it was precisely because my time at Fletcher was filled with so much that my belly still feels empty some days. I hadn’t decided if that was my personality, my anxiety, or capitalism talking, so I was happy to ascribe responsibility to all three. I think that’s what they don’t tell you about being an ambitious person: the thrill of ticking off items in the to-do list of your life is fleeting, rapidly replaced by the Next Thing.
My husband, anticipating this, convinced me to spend the summer relaxing. He was right, of course. I haven’t had a true break in a long time. And to his credit, I’ve been able to take time for my hobbies. I’ve read eight books in the last month, painted a few pieces, played video games, been with friends; and in the moments between, I’ve gotten to know the emptiness in my belly a little better.
That emptiness was sated, briefly, in the lead-up to the Human Trafficking Research Network Conference. I had submitted the abstract for my capstone on a whim, since the theme was “Challenging Assumptions” (which is, like, my whole deal with regard to trafficking). I think that was a moment of perfect balance; just enough work to quiet my brain, but not too much that I couldn’t afford to indulge in hobbies and friends. It would have been enough to present, and live in that moment, but then:
And that ended up being a delight that I could sit with for some time (see the Powerpoint presentation, with notes, here). I floated on that for a day, and then the emptiness came back. So I fed her more books, more games, Formula 1 deep-dives, hypothetical schedules for my time at law school (the Next Thing in question), things we needed to do in time for our move to Madison, WI. I even fed her reassurance, different cadences with which my husband would say: “Neiha, it’s fine. You deserve this.”
I wrote that, just now, and the emptiness twinged. And I am reminded: all that this “emptiness” has ever been is ambition mixed up with guilt.
When I was younger, I was thirsty with the need to do something useful. This blog is a testament to that thirst, an archive of the ways I sought to remedy helpless (or punish the lack thereof, at my worst). The older I got, I discovered more creative ways to quench the thirst. And while I am no longer as parched as I used to be – I have a wallet with which I can donate, degrees that can be used, confidence and words, a roadmap called “HOW TO HELP” that leads to a destination called “HERE IS WHERE YOU HELP” – I do feel empty when I am between checkpoints.
I have to caveat here, as I always do: I am a deeply lucky, deeply happy person. I find comfort in my faith, in a family that supports me, in my husband who loves me. Alhamdulillah.
I am a lucky, happy, loved person, Alhamdulillah, and sometimes when the air I breathe is quiet, there is an emptiness in my belly that reminds me that I am not yet enough, because my enoughness is irrevocably tied to how much I am able to help, how much I have helped. I don’t think that emptiness will ever go away, to be honest; the negative space to the help I offer is all the help I cannot offer, or have not offered, and sometimes “cannot” and “have not” are the same thing.
The thing is, the emptiness isn’t a complete net-negative. It is annoying at worst. Sometimes I burn myself out rather than feel the emptiness. This is stupid, obviously: burnouts are a rapid route back to emptiness. But again – this is just annoying. When I said earlier that I’ve spent time with that emptiness, it was to say that I understand it better now. It is my innate ambitiousness – who I am as a person, my desire to help – tempered by the guilt I feel as a result of my circumstances. The propellants of this latter guilt are somewhat mutable, often by new skills and knowledge, themselves checkpoints on my roadmap. Other constitutive elements of the guilt are immutable (money, time, my nationality, my mental health, etc), and I cannot allow that to turn into guilt.
(If it surprises you that I’ve come to such a basic conclusion, you haven’t been reading this blog long enough.)
Look, at the end of the day, I am a stubborn person, with hard expectations of myself, and an often unyielding code of ethics. My realizations are hard-earned, and really only come by when I don’t have the luxury of busyness. And right now, I can honestly say I’ve spent more time with my own brain – and my emptiness – than I have in a long time.
So, I will complain about my enforced vacation, but it will be halfhearted. Because I know, despite – and because of – my complaints, I have deserved this time with myself, and I have earned these emotional, difficult reckonings. The emptiness in my belly is something I can work with, because it motivates me. And when it does the opposite – when it threatens to let the guilt overrule the ambition – I can work with that too. It may mean recourse to other people, temporary sadness, deep discomfort. But I can work with it. And I don’t think that is a thing I could have said even a few months ago.
Here I am, then, between checkpoints. I get to go to law school next, despite my best efforts to avoid that fate, and I don’t even feel that resentful. The journey to getting to know myself – including this emptiness, its resolve and guidance – has made a fool of me several times over already, and that’s an honest to goodness privilege. I’m stubborn, but at least I have a sense of humor.