Find Your Way Back

“Daddy used to take me walkin’ down the street / Daddy used to take my hand, say, ‘Follow me’ / Daddy used to leave me back home all the time / I got big enough to run around, daddy left me outside.
He said, “Find your way back / Big, big world, but you got it, baby / Find your way back / Don’t let this life drive you crazy / Find your way back / Come back home ‘fore the street lights on / Find your way back..
Daddy used to tell me, “Look up at the stars / It’s been a long time, but remember who you are / Circle of life and one day, I might not make it / But you just gotta find your way back / Big, big world, but you got it, baby / Find your way back / Don’t let this life drive you crazy / Find your way back / Come back home ‘fore the street lights on / Find your way back..
Daddy used to teach me all my moves / Runnin’ ’round wild, had to tie my shoes / Itty bitty child with a smile like you / Wild, wild child, look a lot like you / Daddy used to teach me all my tricks / Runnin’ ’round, had to get my fix / Daddy used to teach me all my plays / On a marathon, had to run my race..
“Find Your Way Back”, The Lion King: The Gift by Beyoncé
  • August Update & Goal

Today is the first of August. It’s the peak of summer, a month before the start of my second year as a PhD student…

The Time has come to prepare for what I’ve been apprehensive about since first joining the program. At the end of this academic year, in April or May 2020, I will be taking my General Exam. It is a two-hour exam administered by four examiners in four different fields. Each field is composed of a reading list of roughly 100-150 books and articles. Frankly, the format of the exam – oral – is as equally daunting as its total scope of 400-600 texts.

Despite this, I am forever grateful to even be in a position to take this exam; earning my PhD at Harvard has been a dream of an opportunity. And I’ll never miss sight of this: Remember the days you prayed for the things you have now.

 

  • About Last Year, The Crisis

The first half of 2018 was indeed a time of gratitude, a time Forward. I cannot even express the happiness I experienced in all areas of my life. I had my love and soulmate, I saw my muse Beyoncé in Nice, France. I acquired my Chestnut home and my Harvard dream. Under my breath lived lyrics from the Queen: “I can’t believe we made it, this is what we’re thankful for” (Apesh*t), and “All of this winnin’, I’ve been losin’ my mind” (Shinin’)

The second half, starting in October 2018, brought with it a crisis of unexpected proportion. Again, I am grateful, because from every crisis is a bountiful amount of lessons, experience, and growth, although it reminded me of Mother Teresa’s saying: “I know God won’t give me anything I can’t handle. I just wish he didn’t trust me so much”.

It was a fast-paced time, everything moved quickly. Everything changed, daily. Multiple times within each day, too. I was alert and “on call”, all the time. Fires were blazing and skies were falling. Whispers were heard, sources were contacted, phone calls were received. Injustice was exposed and shock seeped into everyone’s minds and hearts. It short-circuited some, yet somehow it was also an adrenaline-rush. You must keep up, race ahead of updates, be on the edge of news – sometimes even breaking it yourself. Even when you tried to stand still, you couldn’t stop watching as everyone else was still moving. A sort of innate urge to “bear witness” as chaos unfolded. They shifted morals and positions; they took sides and changed homes. They raised flags and lowered others. They protested and betrayed. They disappeared and rose in ranks. They lifted up each other, just as much as they stood on the backs of one another.

It was like staring into the abyss. Such an unsettling, unnatural sight. That’s what crises do, when the status quo and laws are in flux, our notions of normalcy are thrown into question. Crises highlight the abyss of human nature. Some people turn altruistic and heroic, while others loot and murder. Some get lost in-between, in the grey zone of fear and incentives, while devoted others pledge to, at minimum, protect their loved ones at all costs. Others still are simply unable to cope and rely on denial.

The most constant beauty of a crisis, I suppose, is that it ends. All crises do. People speak of indefinite wars, but no conflict truly lasts forever. People make do, they adapt. It may not be ideal, or just, but it is true. When they can’t overthrow them, people even learn to survive their oppressors. They just do. And when governments are left behind altogether, people build lives out of refugee tents, they make homes out of exile. They give birth in a barren desert, find happiness under dirt and rubble, or solidarity across oceans and seas. They just do.

But part of crises’ insidious nature is that it is quite the trick is to know when the dust has settled, when it has stopped. To truly know it. To turn off the sense of alertness and insecurity, regardless of whether the battle has been won, or lost. To stop jumping at the sound of fireworks, to enjoy suspense films again. Journalists, veterans, ER doctors and nurses will tell you – sometimes, crises can live on within you. This is especially true given that they believe it was their role to address such crises, and that it was morally right to do so, too.

But, you cannot let the abyss stare back at you. Eventually, you must look away. Or – Look up, instead. Find the stars, again. They will guide you Home, they will show you the way back.

This will feel impossible, at first. Crises teach you that the future is a luxury, that you can only relentlessly scan the now for threats and possibilities. So, you restrain yourself to look past the uncertainty of the present, to see the current conditions for what they are and could likely remain to be. Essentially, to read the writing on the wall, you must be able to taste the future again, just a bit. You must force yourself to envision the road/world ahead and choose your place in it, then walk Forward – even when it is straight into the night.

In a similar vein, I write this post in public recognition of two conclusions:

  1. I have an upcoming, important personal goal that I need to devote myself entirely to. I know I will be a better version of myself for having done so.
  2. Simply, the period of 2018-2019 cannot be the next era of 2019-2020.

I write this post as a way to hold myself accountable to what I have decided over the summer. I am telling myself: It is time to step away from the edge of the abyss. The dust has settled. I can see the path clearing ahead; the star Light is shining up above, I will follow it North, as it brightens up the dark, blue sky. And, dare I say it? I think the Light will win.

And He whispered to her, on the third year of seventeen: “You know, you’re looking at it wrong. The sky thing. Once there was only dark. If you ask me, the Light’s winning”.

 

  • Moving Forward: Technology

Technology was the catalyst to many adventures. Technology gave me my husband, my passion and career. It brought me friends and causes I deeply believe in. It brought me opportunities to speak and write and travel. It is truly a stunning innovation and it has persistently enriched my life.

But it is also increasingly under the control of capital and states. We know this, we’re smart users. We recognize these tools are wired to “hack” our brains with dopamine tricks, to steal our attention, reshape our focus, invade our privacy, and sell our information and agency to high-paying clients. We know this. But sometimes, especially in times of crises, we forget and lose our balance. We forget what control and boundaries are necessary to secure us against these forces. We fall prey to their predatory programs, a mix of marketing and neuroscience, that relentlessly seek to craft us into both addict and product. The tools become more powerful than the hands that held them, the hands that once wielded them for the user’s success, rather than the success of the tools’ makers and breakers.

So, what do you do? I initially thought this was a hard predicament since these same tools intersect with so many good and important things. But it isn’t, it’s simple. Press pause on everything. Navigate your way back to that equilibrium. And set up a “security system” or “rules of engagement”, so to speak. An approach of both embrace and restraint.

Effective August 17, 2019, I will adopt these rules for the period of September 2019-April/May 2020:

  1. Delete Twitter App from iPhone – entirely. I’ve never done this since joining Twitter in Dec 2010. I will use Twitter ONLY on Desktop, at least until AFTER the general exam.
  2. Turn Off iPhone Notifications. Exception: immediate Family members’ messages and a select few apps that help in life/professional tasks (Lyft, etc.).
  3. Create a VIP tab in iPhone Mail, only checking that for email a few times of the day.
  4. Install Freedom and use it to block various websites on Desktop during work sessions. I recommend ‘Freedom’ because the block sessions also sync with iPhone.
  5. Delete unused apps and creating folders for non-essential ones.
  6. Re-organize remaining apps in such a way that returns iPhone to a “tool”, rather than mini-computer.
  7. Use grayscale filter on phone as often as possible.
  8. Purchase and use analog alarm clock, rather than multiple phone alarms.
  9. Place phone in same place every night before falling asleep. Not in bed.
  10. When waking up, do not immediately check phone. Allow first a natural and full wakeup.
  11. Test phone scrolling before sleep if “positive”/reading materials, no breaking news, etc. Utilize “Night Shift” for warmer colored screen at night.
  12. Remember TV is a screen, too. Even if at end of day, limit to avoid disrupting sleep pattern.
  13. Allow for “catch up” sessions on Twitter in a single Desktop-sitting at a scheduled time of day and frequency in a week. The same for messaging apps, including those potentially time-sensitive and need time/space appropriate for engaging their information.
  14. Work on building “turn off” mental muscle after every time you “sign out” of these catch-up sessions. When you sign off, turn off. Because “the world’s most well-known creative minds all seem to share the same fundamental belief: in order to be truly creative, you need silence.
Alain de Button, speaking to WaPo: “Twitter is of course a wonderful thing, but it is also the most appalling distraction ever invented. It sounds so harmless. But it wants you never to be in touch with yourself again… It denies us that precious non-specific time in which you can daydream, unpack your anxieties and have a conversation with your deeper self.  
There are countless difficult things hiding away deep within us which we should give some thought to even though the desperate temptation is to keep tweeting and RTing. We need Twitter sabbaths. We need long train journeys on which we have no wireless signal and nothing to read, where our carriage is mostly empty, where the views are expansive and where the only sounds are those made by the wheels as they click against the rails…
We need relief from the Twitter-fueled impression that we are living in an age of unparalleled importance, with our wars, our debts, our riots, our missing children, our after-premiere parties, our IPOs and our rogue missiles. We need, on occasion, to be able to go to a quieter place, where that particular conference and this particular epidemic, that new phone and this shocking wildfire, will lose a little of their power to affect us – and where even the most intractable problems will seem to dissolve against a backdrop of the stars above us.
A flourishing life requires a capacity to recognize the times when Twitter no longer has anything original or important to teach us; periods when we should refuse imaginative connection with strangers and hashtags, when we must leave the business of complaining, insulting, haranguing, exclaiming to others, in the knowledge that we have our own priorities to honor in the brief time still allotted to us.”
  • Moving Forward: Politics

The near-ending scene of Blade Runner offered us a most epic monologue from the dying replicant Roy Batty, who declared, as he cried into the rain: “I have seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die”. A white dove then flied up into the darkened sky…

Roy, the replicant, is a human-like robot with an artificial soul, but it felt things, saw things. His passionate voice and tormented eyes suggest that he may have even experienced them in ways ordinary humans could not perhaps dream of. Throughout the existential sci-fi film, reality, memory or history, and dreams are shown as elusive as the line between the human and technological.

This, I think, is kind of like what it feels like to do politics/crisis work in the digital age. We created replicants of ourselves and blurred that same line, significantly. This world does not operate how we once understood it to, we have seen things and experienced moments that others wouldn’t believe, things that are as humanly consequential as they are technologically lost and ephemeral – like a tweet, posted on a drive back from New Haven. Perhaps the original Blade Runner wasn’t so far off when it set its futuristic story in the year of 2019.

In such a different world, one has to pause to think and find their way. I come to this conclusion as someone who has always been influenced by and preoccupied with Hannah Arendt’s warning against thoughtlessness. Arendt argued that evil had a banal quality to it; the dark of the Holocaust was composed of thoughtless, bureaucratic actions. But in this blurred reality, there is another sort of thoughtlessness that I have become preoccupied with: while Arendt warned against evil in the form of thoughtlessness, should we not also be weary of becoming thoughtlessly good? I mean, Can good, like evil, also be thoughtless?

In times of crisis, this blend of the human and the technological displays its worst effects. It means that the public has a way of being aggressive and intrusive, it creeps in on you, even in your private spaces. It is that unexpected threat, that unanticipated message of bad news and its horrific details, that friend’s desperate call for assistance, that urgent upcoming event that you must participate in, that circulating offensive and morally appalling development. It is also those with agendas, coming at you from all sides. You may find yourself pushed to react, pushed to be thoughtlessly good – pushed, using the same tools that have others acting thoughtlessly evil.

My lessons learned or advice to myself for post-April/May 2020 and anyone else who might benefit:

  1. Take time out to observe this new world you’ve found yourself in. Every world has its own underlying rules and roles, its own set of players and moves. Learn them.
  2. Identify your gifts and strengths. Develop those, first and foremost. A related, simple truth is repeated to us every time we sit aboard a plane: “Place the oxygen mask on yourself first before helping small children or others who may need assistance.”
  3. Let those personal traits define your role, dictate your best type of contribution and method of impact. Stick to that and avoid roles beneath your abilities or greater than your capacity. Resist falling into gifts-depleting cycles of reaction. In other words, think of playing the long game and trying to be part of something Bigger.
  4. Value your voice and your name. Guard it as your most valuable possession.
  5. Know that others will not consider your interests or safety as best as you will, no matter their good intentions.
  6. Recognize that your energy, focus, effort, time, sources, etc. are all finite resources and they can, in fact, be wasted. Be selective with whom you share them and for what purpose.
  7. You cannot be everywhere for everything and everyone. Empathy and a sense of justice are good qualities, but must be guided by reason, feasibility, and common sense.
  8. Develop and trust your intuition about people. Learn your friends and foes. Know the in-betweens, too.
  9. Try to risk no more than you are willing to lose.
  10. Accept that risk is impossible to perfectly assess and that things can happen, despite your best efforts to avoid this.
  11. Always – and I mean always – check the funding and backing information.
  12. You have every right to adopt some battles, and sit out on other ones. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, for any reason.
  13. Initiate actions on your own terms and principles, not others’. Think of George Bernard Shaw: “I learned long ago, never to wrestle with a pig. You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it”.
  14. Collaborate in a Kantian way: treat others as ends in themselves, never merely as a means. Being good is seductive, it can trick you into thinking this principle is less morally necessary when the end is a good But it actually becomes more important: “He who fights monsters might take care lest he thereby become one” (Friedrich Nietzsche).
  15. Lastly, and most importantly: build an ironclad private space. Protect it and hold it above all else. It is your most Sacred, most precious and meaningful, most fulfilling and beloved space. There are no greater roles than the ones you hold in private.
“PROCTOR, with a cry of his whole soul: Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life! Because I lie and sign myself to lies! Because I am not worth the dust on the feet of them that hang! How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!” (The Crucible, Act 4, pg. 133).

 

  • Remember Who You Are

I had just left my advisor’s office after Fall quarter as a college freshmen at UCI. To say my first months alone in the US weren’t turning out as I’d hoped would be an understatement. She’d warned me that I would be dismissed from school if I did not raise my GPA within a single semester. I failed a Biology class, nearly failed another in Chemistry, and was doing horribly in the rest. I remember as I left her office building, I had to climb up a steep hill and then walk for a while, just to get back to my car. It was such a heavy stroll, I was convinced my body had taken on the weight of cement. As I sweat under the hot California sun, I had a Scarlett O’Hara of Gone with the Wind moment with myself. I promised myself, as did she: “As God is my witness, as God is my witness they’re not going to lick me. I’m going to live through this and when it’s all over, I’ll never be hungry again. No, nor any of my folk. If I have to lie, steal, cheat or kill. As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again”. And that’s exactly what I did – minus the lying, stealing, cheating, or killing. I got straight A’s in the next quarter when I switched my major and eventually graduated with a double major with a certificate (they didn’t offer a major in the certificate field at the time). And in my last year I applied and managed to get accepted into a Master’s program at GWU.

I have re-told that story to myself so many times, whenever I needed to remember it again. But with every re-telling of a story, something is lost, and sometimes intentionally silenced. What I had forgotten as of late, or perhaps subconsciously left out because it was not a pretty process, was to remember what it took for that to actually happen. I had to change a lot of things about my life, it took all the courage I could muster.

I spent this summer reconstructing the silenced parts of this memory, and others like it. In a way, I was being the historian-in-training that I am, flipping the critical-reading skills I’ve learnt onto myself. Sometimes – to move Forward, you have to Remember. You have to remember who you are.

IMG_4375

I remembered that I am not an over-achiever, I am a stubborn-achiever. It has never been easy, as my memories can attest. It has always been an internal battle to Never Give Up – a mantra I was raised on. But I have succeeded in many things, just as I have failed at many others. Those failures were not always apparent to others, while sometimes they were unmistakably so. But what was consistent throughout was that, once I identified that something was wrong or I was performing less than my potential, I’d do something dramatic to resolve it. I’d do hard things. I’d change things around myself, or about myself. I’d cut things off, take things out. It is a surgical impulse – to remove things as a way to regain control, to heal, to excel.

My own experience and others’ wisdom have taught me to balance dramatic steps with accepting support and recognizing that resilience can be taxing. For this reason, I will also either continue on or start new personal rules/habits that I won’t be listing here but will similarly be in effect August 17, 2019. And I will police my perfectionist inclinations, forgive myself if I fall short at times. What matters is that all of this is my true, thoughtful intention, and I will stubbornly pursue it again and again.

And now that I Remember and see that “a crisis represents an appetite for growth that hasn’t found another way of expressing itself”, I conclude that: to “find my way back”, for now, I need to take all the steps outlined and beware thoughtlessness, in all its forms.

Wish me luck in the next 8-9 months!

“If you feel insignificant, you better think again / Better wake up because you’re part of something way bigger / You’re part of something way bigger / Not just a speck in the universe / Not just some words in a Bible verse / You are the Living Word.. 
Understand the truth ’bout that question in your soul / Look up, don’t look down, then watch the answers unfold / Life is your birthright, they hid that in the fine print / Take the pen and rewrite it / Step out your estimate / Step in your essence and know that you’re excellent / Rise, the spirit is teachin’ / Oh, I’m not just preachin’, I’m takin’ my own advice..
Let mama let you know / Mama’s just tryin’, I can’t get no days off / I don’t get no days off / Truly, I’m feelin’ it, I had to say that thing twice / Tryin’ to be a good wife / Still really hard, I can’t lie / But I promised you I will fight, so I fight / If you feelin’ frustrated and / You’re sinkin’, I’m jumpin’ in / Forgiveness is key because we’re fightin’ something way bigger / You’ll never lose, we are winners / I’ll be the roots, you be the tree / Pass on the fruit that was given to me / Legacy, we’re part of something way bigger..”
“Bigger”, The Lion King: The Gift by Beyoncé

 

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