When I awoke this morning it was not the nuthatch, finch, and chickadee songs coaxing me into wakefulness. It was not the early spring breeze, peaty and warm, billowing in my curtains, tossing back my sheets, and tangling in my hair. When I awoke this morning it was not a gentle awakening. What heralded today’s morning, what electrified all of my senses into wakefulness, was a panic attack. This is the first panic attack I have had since beginning my final semester at university nearly a year ago, and I almost forgot what these attacks felt like. Almost, but not quite.
I used to think that nothing could be as stressful as three critical deadlines (amounting to nearly 10,000 words written) within ten days. Or losing my luggage containing all of my underwear when I returned to St Andrews to begin my final year, and what kind of omen that represented. While I knew there would inevitably be challenges to adjusting to postgraduate life, I was actually looking forward to a respite from academia for a time and distancing myself from the stress that became my closest companion at university. I had no plan for my life after graduation, merely a vague “that way” direction. The details of this journey — the precise route, rough or smooth terrain, and whether I would have companions along the way — was something I did not care to mull over for very long.
My philosophy for approaching life after university was to be free spirited, laissez-faire. I vowed to simply laugh at any bumps encountered along the way and to repeat my new personal motto,”C’est la vie.” I was proud of myself for not having a concrete plan, as it meant that I had achieved a small personal victory: to relax and to not be so fixated on the minutia, as in the past when things did not unfold according to plan I would completely shut down. This new attitude also meant that I could commit myself to whatever weird and wonderful opportunity presented itself in my post graduate life, chasing new horizons and new experiences in the way that I believed I was meant to do.
What I had not considered in all this time was how not having a concrete plan could adversely affect me, and perhaps welcome back the stress I thought I had bid farewell with the stone walls of St Salvator’s Quad. As much as I like to appear a spontaneous, “go where the wind takes me” sort of individual, these wild-hearted traits are not intrinsic to who I am, but rather a conscious choice I make nearly each and every day. At my core I am organized and I am meticulous: as much as I have come to treasure the spirit of adventure, routine makes me feel calm and whole. This is why the uncertainty bound to my new life — the life of a newly minted yet wholly clueless graduate — began to chip away at me as summer slowed into autumn and autumn stilled into winter. For brevity’s sake I will refrain from rehashing all of the negative thoughts buzzing about my mind during this time, as I discussed them at length in my previous entry. All I will say is that the worries of wasting my time chasing dead-end dreams and anxieties of not being “enough” began to fade when the wildest of my “wild card” options — volunteering with the Peace Corps in The Gambia, West Africa — beckoned me to embark on the adventure of a lifetime.
Since graduating from St Andrews and accepting this invitation from the Peace Corps, the tone and content of this blog will shift to encompass the details and the spirit of my Peace Corps journey. This is why the panic attack I suffered as today’s morning alarm and its cause are significant. Though I hazard over-sharing, I aim to be truthful and to document all of my experiences along this journey: the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Last month I was told that I would not be granted medical clearance to serve in The Gambia. My Peace Corps journey effectively ended before it even began, and that certainty of purpose I was reaching for had vanished.
When I was in junior high, I had a teacher who intentionally failed me on several assignments. I gathered all the courage a twelve year old could muster and questioned him about his grading, for I was confused as to why I kept receiving such poor marks though I always answered questions correctly and exceeded curriculum expectations. He looked me in the eyes and said simply, “You need to learn how to fail.” At the time I was outraged. I believed that it was not his place to instill such a lesson, especially if his “teaching” reflected poorly on my transcripts, transcripts that I thought would determine my future. I also could not understand why success was something to be punished, especially in the context of a student-teacher, child-adult relationship. I wonder to this day why this teacher felt that discouraging the success of a bright child who is eager to learn was something he felt the need to do. And what this teacher perhaps never anticipated is how his “lesson” has stayed with me for over a decade later, and not in a wholly positive way.
Looking back, though, I realize that this teacher was right. Failure and I are not intimately acquainted. There have been moments in the past five years that felt very much like personal failure, and those experiences have admittedly been detrimental to my self-esteem. Yet I have learned from these moments how to be self-sufficient and strong, how to gather up my pieces, stitch them back together, and continue on the path I have laid out for myself. Most importantly, as I have gotten older I have learned that there is indeed a difference between mere disappointment and outright failure. So, this teacher was right; I do not fail often, mostly because the hiccups and roadblocks I have encountered in the past five years were not catastrophic, but merely moments of disappointment that encouraged self-growth.
I am relaying this story to you because this idea of learning to fail immediately came to my mind when I received word that I might not go to The Gambia. This was the moment that truly revealed to me the difference between disappointment and failure. Yet while the news has quite honestly devastated me, as the certainty of purpose that came with my invitation to go to The Gambia seemed to turn to ash in my hands as I read the reason for denying my medical clearance, it is not how this has affected me personally that makes me feel as though I have utterly failed. Rather, it is the thought of the teachers I will not be able to support, the children I will not be able to tell stories to, the community members I will not be able to befriend, and the experiences I will not be able to share with my friends and family that has me feeling like I have failed, for I have failed them.
One of my greatest ambitions in life is to live meaningfully, and I believe that the path towards doing so entails cultivating rich, diverse relationships across the globe with the goal of cross-cultural sharing and understanding. I believe that all of us have an integral role to play in the making of this kind of world; mine, so far as I know, is to tell stories about where I have been and the people I have the privilege to call “friend.” While this is not a world-changing or even life-changing part to play, I like to think that something as simple as sharing a story can indeed have an impact, no matter how small it may be. The denial of my medical clearance for the Peace Corps, and the ever-looming reality that I may very well not go to The Gambia thus makes me feel as though I have not fulfilled my duty, that I have failed the people that I know and those who I have yet to meet.
The panic attack that heralded my day was my response to a vivid nightmare about the Peace Corps denying my clearance I had in the moments prior to waking. In my dream, I was at a tribunal that would decide whether my appeal against this denial would be granted or not. No matter how ardently I pleaded, how persuasively I argued, the Nightmare Council would not grant my appeal and told me that the Peace Corps had no use for me. The stress of my waking life had finally infiltrated my dreams. The raw emotion I felt in the dream — the impetus for my “good morning” panic attack — emphasizes just how important my future with the Peace Corps is to me, and how desperately I wish to go to The Gambia to offer support in any way that I am able. And so I felt the urge to document my struggle with this turn of events, and just how it affects the purpose that I thought I had finally achieved.
Currently I am waiting to hear if the appeal I made to the Peace Corps medical board was successful. It is my hope that the letters of support from three physicians, in addition to a personal appeal I penned myself outlining my experience with the condition in question and my passion for service with the Peace Corps, will be sufficient to validate my case. However, I was warned that appeals are rarely granted, and even when they are, they often come too late. Several people have been asking me whether I am excited to begin this new chapter in my life and how it is I am preparing for life in The Gambia, yet the stress of this situation has made me mute. How can I be excited if this dream, a dream of a meaningful life, is slowly drifting away from me?
Lately I have found the idiom “when pigs fly” to be rather suitable for describing the current state of my life. With this news from the Peace Corps, it feels as though what I hope to accomplish in my life really will only occur “when pigs fly.” I have begun to think that I should not hope so ardently that my appeal will be granted and that I should strive to create more concrete contingency plans. Perhaps what I need to do is simply pull my head out of the clouds and acknowledge that I should be more realistic about the trajectory of my life and the goals I have set. And yet…
While wandering aimlessly around the city one evening, all of these thoughts muddying my clarity of mind and weighing heavily on my heart, I happened to glance up and see an illustration of a small winged pig sitting dreamily on a ledge, a beautiful blue sky to his back. Much like the message in my chocolate telling me to go to The Gambia in the first place, I am a firm believer in the universe sending us little reminders of what it is we are meant to do when we are unsure of ourselves. The wee flying pig that I saw that night seems to me that the universe has given me a sign to keep hope alive.