The Narrative

The stories we tell ourselves

I am not a smart person. This has been the belief I have held since I became an adult. Having dropped out of two university programs, good grades always a struggle, and the naive idea that experience was a better teacher than a classroom and you have the narrative I’ve told myself for almost two decades. Eventually, the repetition of the statement becomes one’s truth, whether or not the statement is factual. Marcus Aurelius was correct: “Our life is what our thoughts make it.”

Sunset behind a church steeple on the Harvard campus in Cambridge, MA.
Sunset at Harvard

At some point last year, in 2018, I decided that enough was enough. I was unhappy with the direction of my life, but I couldn’t uproot everything on a whim (at some point, one has to stop reacting to experiences and instead respond to them). So, I decided to dip my toe back into the educational pool and signed up for a class at the Harvard Extension School for the 2019 Spring semester. There are three weeks left in the semester, and I have immensely enjoyed the experience. The I am not a smart person tale woven into truth in my head is unraveling.

Another narrative that plays over like a B movie in my head is that I am not good enough. Good enough for what? I’m not a good enough boss, I’m not a good enough friend, I’m not good enough to attend Harvard, I’m not good enough for someone else to love me. This narrative, more than any other, is what haunts me in the quiet spots of my day. The story of not good enough has invaded my life. Not good enough is the big driver that causes me to flee, never digging in roots, skidding away from intimacy like rocks skipping on a pond. Not good enough is an epic novel, built from decades of shitty self-talk. Conquering that narrative, changing it, is a bit like scaling Mt. Everest; one does not attempt the summit without acclimating at Base Camp first. I am dumb is my Base Camp. This Spring semester at Harvard is just buying the boots, breaking them in, dreaming of what the thin air will do to my breathing.

Brendan Leonard, over at Semi-Rad, recently wrote about aging and coming to terms with the “lives we won’t live, or things in the past we could have done differently.” At our ages—I believe he’s also around forty—the realization that you don’t have unlimited time to remake one’s self into the person you thought you’d be looms large. In the same post, Leonard writes of the dip in happiness that occurs in middle-age1 and the rebound that happens in one’s late fifties. Different scientists attribute the reasons behind it slightly differently, but the gist of it is we tend to look at our life and think, “Is this it? Is this what I have to look forward to for the next twenty years?” These were the thoughts that sprung up in my head last November. These were the thoughts that prompted paying tuition and agonizing over essays and staying up past my bedtime each Thursday night for the past few months. I want a chance at being a version of the person I thought I’d be.

At some point, perhaps in the not-too-distant future, I may have to accept who I become. Or maybe not. Maybe instead of accepting, I will rejoice in who I have become. The stories we tell ourselves can be rewritten, at any time. Age is not a reason to stop rewriting them. Instead, it is a reason to be more deliberate in the kinds of stories we want to tell and sharpens the focus. Aging2 has taught me that time is more valuable than any other resource. This lack of time is my biggest concern with attempting a degree at Harvard but time passes regardless of what one does. The question then becomes, “Why not?” Fill up the time with worthwhile pursuits. Become who you thought you’d be.

  1. To write middle-age and feel it in my bones that this term now becomes part of my lexicon is both frightening and exhilirating at the same time. ↩︎

  2. Yes, I realize that someone at sixty will scoff at my term aging, especially when coming from a forty year-old. Age and oldness are relative, aren’t they? ↩︎