Do You Understand?

“Murabyumva? Murabyumva?”

“Do you understand? Do you understand?”

Eight of us in the classroom chorus, “Yego!”—“Yes!”— in response, even though we’re not sure we understand.

All day this has been going on. We’re saturated with new words, new sounds, new expressions. Our language trainers laugh and clap for us every time we muddle through a word, even when we mangle the foreign sounds with our clumsy American tongues.

Every few minutes, one of them grins at us and asks, “Murabyumva?”

Once in a while, too confused to fake it or maybe just brave enough to admit it, one of us answers, “Oya!”—“No!”

Sometimes, if we’re too overwhelmed to put together a reasonable understanding from the liberal flow of Kinyarwanda and never-ending pantomime our teachers use, they pause and patiently use English to explain the specific meaning of a word or the slight contextual difference between “muramuke” and “ijororyiza.”

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In the space of a few days, this has become my reality.

I’ve gone from feeling like a more-or-less adult to feeling like a child. My vocabulary is limited to basic greetings, “thank you,” “yes” and “no,” and “I want.” I don’t recognise most of the food. I don’t know the customs or the culture. I don’t even know how to ask for the bathroom (I asked someone, and she said, “It’s more complicated,” and didn’t tell me).

I’ve always liked to know everything—to be aware of all the ins and outs, to know the reasons behind everything, to be able to predict and control. I can’t do that anymore.

I don’t know the ins and outs of Rwandan culture or language. I can’t predict anyone’s responses or behaviour. I can’t guess what sounds should go together or how to rearrange my limited vocabulary into a different sentence than the formulaic dialogue on the board.

I’m ignorant and dependent—dependent on my host country’s goodwill and condescension, dependent on my teachers’ forgiveness for my unwitting faux pas, dependent on everyone else’s bilingual abilities to compensate for my own lack of language.

Now that I have no choice, I’m finding that there’s a kind of joy to it.

There’s a freedom I’ve seldom allowed myself in situations I can control. Freedom to make mistakes, freedom to forget, freedom to laugh at myself.

There’s a grace—from myself, from my peers, from my trainers. Grace that says, “Yego!” or “Ni byiza!”—“It’s good!”—when I fumble a word or fudge a phoneme. Grace that cheers for each attempt no matter the failure and acknowledges varying levels of skill as all equally acceptable.

There’s a beauty in the struggle to learn something wholly new, to create sounds that my tongue has never formed before, to admit my utter lack of knowledge and to sit humbly, repeating new phrases like a child, accepting smiles and laughter and wholehearted encouragement from my trainers.

There’s a beauty in not knowing. There’s a beauty in being helpless.

This position of complete vulnerability gives me a new permission to see every tiny step as a great achievement. Instead of criticising my insufficiencies until I reach some high benchmark, I’m allowing myself to celebrate each inch I gain.

In the space of a few days, I’ve become increasingly comfortable with not knowing. I’ve learned to ask dumb questions and then ask them again when I don’t understand answers. To pretend I know and trust that at some point in the future, I will. To say “Yego!” when the teacher asks, “Murabyumva?” and to believe that all the tangles of phonemes will separate themselves in time and that for now it is okay to repeat them half-knowingly, to scramble the mixed consonants, and to laugh and clap and call out “Yego!” for my smallest successes.

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Defining Ourselves

“We live in a culture where we define ourselves by our weaknesses.”

My mother said it in passing recently, and for a moment I couldn’t breathe because it struck me so hard and true. We define ourselves by our weaknesses—by the things we haven’t accomplished or the lifestyle we don’t have, by our disorders or our deficiencies.

I see it in myself. I see it everywhere, in fact, once I begin to look for it.

I define myself by my social anxiety and lack of financial security. Even when I acknowledge my strengths, I find a way to turn them into weaknesses: I am a mediocre musician and an aspiring novelist.

You probably do it too—undermine yourself, maybe out of a sense of false modesty, or maybe out of fear. You’re successful, but…

But what?

It’s smart in some ways, finding our weak points, learning to compensate for our deficiencies, protecting our vulnerabilities. But in a world full of impossible standards, where failure is magnified and our best is never quite good enough, we have enough negative voices cutting us down; we don’t need to make ourselves feel worse.

So why do we do it? Maybe it’s self-preservation. We’re terrified of being insignificant and insufficient, so we cut ourselves down before someone else can do it for us. Being told we’re worthless hurts less if we’ve already told it to ourselves. When someone says, “You’re not good enough,” we can respond with, “I never said I was.”

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We try to protect ourselves by reducing our value to the lowest common denominator. We’re afraid to be knocked down if we stand too tall. Weaknesses are impervious to attack, invulnerable to comparison. In a competitive culture, someone else’s strengths always feel like a threat to mine, but someone else’s weaknesses feel like companionship.

But what if we defined ourselves by our strengths? What if we turned the model on its head and saw every drawback as a gift? What if I stopped saying, “I am anxious” and began saying, “I am brave enough to function despite my anxiety”?

Suddenly we’re not petrified by fear, not shackled by the limitations we’ve set. We’re free to try, fail, and try again. We’re free to take ownership of our wins as well as our losses. We’re strong enough to stand for ourselves, to acknowledge ourselves as being more than the sum of our shortcomings.

We are not defined in terms of other people. I don’t have to see myself in competition. I can own my abilities no matter where they fall in relation to you. We don’t have to be strong versus stronger—we can all be strong. We don’t have to be successful versus more successful—we can all be successful.

We are all good enough, if we’ll only stop looking for reasons not to be.

Comparisons

“How do you adult so much better than I do?” a friend asked me recently.

For a few minutes, I couldn’t answer, certain she’d meant to ask someone else. Someone besides me. In that space of waiting, I ran up the tally in my mind—all the reasons she was most definitely a better adult than I:

  • She’s married, so she has the relationship thing figured out—I’m single.
  • She did all her own wedding decorations, so she’s not only crafty but able to complete projects—I’ve been knitting the same jumper for the past two years.
  • She has an apartment—I live with my parents at the moment.
  • She has a car—I’ve been letting my brothers chauffeur me around town.
  • She has a job—well, so do I, technically, but her job seems better.
  • She ……

And so on. At about that point, I was ready to give up, burn the unfinished to-do list I’ve been hiding from for a month, curl up on the sofa forever, and declare myself incompetent as an adult.

“You don’t have to run. You can walk,” my mother tells me. “Something is better than nothing.”

That’s her philosophy when it comes to almost everything, and as I begin to let go of my terrifying perfectionism, I see that she’s right. I’ve heard it most of my life, and you probably have too: “If something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well.” The subtle implication can be disastrous though: “If you don’t feel competent to complete this perfectly, don’t even bother starting.”

This poisonous perfectionism, has resulted in a lot of not bothering starting for me.

I didn’t have time for a whole workout, so I didn’t move at all.

I couldn’t make it on time, so I skipped class entirely.

I couldn’t commit to a deep friendship, so I skipped out on the rewarding acquaintanceship.

I’m sure you can relate, because the more I see of people, the more I realise that this “don’t do it if you can’t do it perfectly” mentality affects a huge number of us. What’s worse, though, is that many of us turn the maxim into something even more warped: “If you can’t do it as well as the person next to you, don’t do it at all.”

Suddenly, our focus isn’t on excellence at all—it’s on competition.

So this week, I’m letting go of competition. I’m letting go of perfectionism, of the lie that I can’t be successful if I can’t outdo someone else, of the need to do everything or nothing, with no healthy in-between.

This week, I’m recognising that though devastation lurks in the comparisons, beauty lives in the contrasts. Beauty lives the knowledge of how far I’ve come and the challenge of how far I have yet to go. It’s in the way our strengths and weaknesses make us need each other, in the way today’s struggles teach us to value tomorrow’s respite. It’s in getting up and doing something, even if it’s not the best something, even if it’s a small something.

Beauty is in every step I think I can’t take, every movement beyond the status quo, every something that goes beyond nothing.

On Spending Time

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There should be a Writers Anonymous club: “Hi, I’m Elizabeth, and it’s been three weeks since I handed someone a half-baked draft for feedback.”

See, I suffer from something I like to call Supportive Audience Deficiency (SAD). I get SAD when I spend hours crafting beautiful words, flowing sentences, and snappy dialogue and have nobody to assure me it’s all worthwhile. Sometimes it feels like maybe I’ve misdiagnosed myself—maybe instead of SAD I’ve got egocentrism problems. I’ve had the argument with myself before:

“I just want someone to reassure me that I’m not wasting my life.”

“You mean you want someone to compliment you.”

“No, I mean if this isn’t going to work out, I want someone to tell me now, before I waste my life on it.”

Wouldn’t life be easier if everything came with a clear designation? “This will take five hours a week and be vital in the long run,” or “This will take seven hours a week and be enjoyable, though you may regret it from time to time.”

Unfortunately, life isn’t like that. For years, my best alternative has been to hand someone a draft and judge by positive or negative feedback whether it’s worth the hours I might spend revising it.

And now I’m realising that I’ve gone about this all wrong. Life isn’t a budget to be balanced. Art isn’t a carefully calculated investment risk.

So I’m turning my back on the worrying and the second-guessing and the needing to know the outcome before I invest in the process. I’m doing what I love right now and letting the long run take care of itself. Instead of letting SAD symptoms dampen my enthusiasm, I’m enjoying the moments as they pass, living my life as it happens instead of waiting for the future.

Maybe the piece I’ve spent years on will never be read—so what? I enjoyed the process. I wrote for myself, not for some hypothetical audience years down the road. As I wrote, I learned self-discipline. I got to know myself better, faced dark parts of my own nature, confronted big questions, and did not surface with all the big answers. I let my imagination run wild and I lived in a new world created entirely at the crossroads of language and ideas. All of this may never be measurably relevant to my career, but it is immeasurably relevant to my being.

The most meaningful things in life may never give quantifiable returns on my time and effort, but perhaps that makes them more valuable, not less. I am shaped by the interests I pursue, the people I encounter, the ideas I entertain. I am formed by minuscule everyday experiences, not by some intangible ledger counting my time down to a bottom line. Every moment, I am growing and becoming. The most significant return on my time is not measured by what I do, what opportunities I have, or where I end up, but by who I am.

And for that, I need no supportive audience. I know the answer without asking—it is always worth my while to be.

Remembering Why I Write

“Sometimes I think I should quit writing and do something simple, like neurosurgery.”

I give this answer from time to time when people ask about my writing or when I’m faced with a insurmountable writers block. Sometimes I say “rocket science” or “quantum physics” instead of “neurosurgery,” but the gist remains the same.

It gets a laugh out of people. More importantly, it deflects attention and saves me from admitting I feel inadequate.

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This never happened before I became a writing major. Back in high school, I remember constant excitement as I switched between drafts, writing whatever caught my fancy at any given moment. I could ramble for hours about my ideas, and I proudly finished draft after draft and filed them away for revisions. Publishing hovered in the future somewhere, waiting for the day I had edited something to my satisfaction and found an agent, or whatever it was you had to do to get published. I didn’t know. I was happy and confident.

Now I’m a writing major. Professors expound on the near impossibility of getting published and preach the importance of racking up bylines—any bylines, in any genre—because nobody will take an unpublished author seriously. My files are stuffed with scrapped drafts, “need five more revisions” novels, and short stories with long rejection notes.

My files are also filled with publications—but not as many as I’ve learnt to need. More people read my writing now than ever before in my life, but I’m less content than ever before. I’ve been taught I need more, always more. And someone else always has more impressive numbers or more exciting bylines than I do.

This week, a couple people wrote to tell me they appreciated my writing, and suddenly I saw my life in perspective. I don’t write for faceless numbers. I write for people—people I care about.

I write because words are a gift I want to pass on. Because other writers gave voice to my own fears and dreams. Because if I can touch one person’s life in even the minutest way—if I can bring about a single smile or let a single person know they’re significant—I’ve accomplished my purpose.

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Writing isn’t about getting published or developing a fan base. It’s not about being the best or having the most bylines. Writing is about loving words and sharing ideas, working out impossible dreams and inspiring conversation. My writing is an extension of me, not the other way around, and that’s a vital difference. I define my work. My work does not define me.

I write for the joy of the language.

So this post is for the artists who crave recognition: someone sees you. Even if it’s one person, you serve a purpose. Your efforts are valuable if you inspire a single new thought, even if the new thought is your own.

It’s for the writers who face rejection slips: your words matter. Remember why you write.

Don’t write for a byline. Write for the joy of the language.

 

6 Top Fears (and how I kinda face them)

Failure following success terrifies me. It’s one thing to be bad at something; it’s another to be good at it once and then fall flat on my face. If I fail to start with, people’s expectations stay low. If I succeed once and then bungle it, I disappoint everyone. As far as I’m concerned, no matter how much I like the word “bungle” on its own, when applied to me, it’s a catastrophe of epic proportions.

Today, I face that fear. By which I mean: I have bungled. And by “bungled,” I mean, “I thought I could have deep thoughts every single Tuesday, and today…I don’t.”

Today, the deepest thing I can manage is to share some of my fears with you in the hopes that maybe you can relate to some of them. So here you are, complete with charming Disney gifs to make up for my lack of depth: six of my top fears and how I kinda sorta once in a while face them.

 

  1. Being a disappointment
    ArielDisappointed
    Please note I said “being a disappointment” not “disappointing people.” They’re basically synonymous in my world: if I disappoint someone, I am a disappointment. The emphasis is on me. My existence is a disappointment. That’s…big. And existential. I might need to go breathe in a paper bag.
    My solution: …well, I have no great solution for this. But it helps to remember a few things: I am not defined by my mistakes or people’s reactions to them. I’m human. I disappoint people, but I am not a disappointment. I’m a pleaser. I like to say “yes”–so I practise saying “no,” usually with a frowny face for added courage. Tip: learning to say “no” in different languages helps, too. Try German or Russian if you want to sound angry about it.
  2. Being a fraud
    MulanFaking
    It’s also accurate to say I’m afraid people will find out I’m a fraud. In most instances, I’m already resigned to faking competence and mostly afraid of being discovered. This applies to anything I’m moderately good at. If anyone has ever, at any point, said, “You’re good at that!” you can bet I’m convinced that I’ve managed to fake my way into looking halfway decent and someday the whole world will discover what a terrible liar I am. They will conclusively prove my fraudulence, scold me for trying to pass myself off as competent, ridicule me… and then I will probably drop out of school and live in a box on a street corner.
    My solution: Sometimes I actually believe people. If enough people think I’m good at something, probably they’re right. It’s kinda rude to keep assuming they’re all either blind or lying to me. Putting it in perspective helps, too. I’m competitive, so if I’m not the best, I think I’m not good enough. But the truth is, I can be pretty darn good at something without being the best. And a couple mistakes here and there–they make me human, not a fraud.
  3. Being alone
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    Now, I like solitude. I’m talking about an existential alone-ness. I’m talking “dying alone with fifty cats and no friends or family” alone. I’m talking Ebenezer Scrooge alone. This fear creeps up on me at night, or when I’m stressed, or when everyone in a group seems to be sharing their hearts and I’m struggling to articulate “I care deeply about you guys” without sounding sarcastic.
    My solution: I’ll be honest–I don’t have a real solution for this. But journaling helps. Talking to real, live people (horrors!) helps. Sometimes it helps just to remember that there are people who tell me things, which means I can’t be completely alone.
  4. Being annoying
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    Don’t laugh. I hear you. You’re either snickering because it’s true or else you’re snickering because you think I’m kidding, and I’m honestly not sure which it is. I have this deep-seated terror that I’m annoying to people around me. Maybe it’s because I find other people annoying or maybe I just think I’d annoy myself if I knew me, but I’m always worried people wish I would leave.
    My solution: I think this is probably a cop-out solution, but I make people laugh. It’s hard to be annoyed when you’re laughing, so whether I irritate people or not, if I can make them laugh, I feel better. Probably don’t quote me on that. Probably your wiser friends will tell you it’s got horrible psychological ramifications as a solution.
  5. Being mediocre
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    Like I said–I’m competitive. If I can’t be the best, I don’t want to be (not a practical perspective, I know). I overcommit and then underperform: I sign up for everything and then don’t put in the effort to excel at anything. I like to say I have too many interests to devote much time to any of them, but my underlying fear remains: What if that’s just an excuse? What if I’m actually a mediocre person? Maybe I don’t put in enough time because I’m mediocre at practising. Maybe even if I put in the time, I’d still be mediocre.
    My solution: I guess I could start actually putting in the time and effort to get better, but usually I just remind myself that it’s okay not to be the best. Lots of not-the-best people live perfectly happy lives, and everyone can’t be the best. Lots of people have to be average or “average” wouldn’t exist, and then where would we be?

  6. Bees, wasps, and other stinging things
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    This is neither existential nor personal, but it is true and it is probably relatable. I’m terrified of them. I tried to pretend I wasn’t for a long time, because I liked playing with the boys, and I thought I looked tougher if I wasn’t scared of bees. I’ve given up pretending. They are evil minions sent from Hades, and I hate them. (For the record, this does not include spiders. Spiders eat other nasty stinging things like mosquitoes, thus making them my friends.)
    My solution: Run. Or freeze in horror. Jump around. Wave my arms. Duck behind the nearest human shield I can find. Make embarrassing, inhuman, girly noises of terror.

And there you have it. I’d love to hear your top fears and how you handle them–or if you have better solutions for any of mine!

Thoughts Post-Apoca…er…Exam

Imagine a middle-school classroom.

I’ll help you. It’s chilly, and the smell of whiteboard markers mixes with Axe and the pungent hot Cheetos someone’s hiding under the desk. Beneath the buzzing fluorescent lights, students shuffle pages, feet, and the unidentifiable contents of a backpack’s deepest pocket. The teacher’s voice cuts like a judge’s at a sentencing: “Clear your desks for the test!”

Groans echo around the room. I groan with them. I’m twelve, and I want to fit in. But I inwardly rejoice, because I love exams.

Proof that middle-school Elizabeth was really nerdy. Not that much besides my hairstyle and taste in jumpers has changed…

No, you didn’t misread that. Meet pre-university Elizabeth: the awkward bookworm who can’t play sports but never misses a quiz question. Other students hear “exam” and think hard questions, bad grades, and stress. Middle-school Elizabeth thinks plenty of time to read a novel while the rest of the students sweat over the questions.

“Test day” meant “free day.”

Fast forward. Hear that familiar, squeaky VHS-tape sound from your childhood…

Now imagine a college classroom: students with iPhones, professor with a full-to-bursting briefcase. No need for a “clear your desks” announcement; the students are all too aware of the impending disaster. They frantically review notes and hold whispered, last-minute conferences about uncertain concepts.

There, slouched in the back row, sipping coffee, you see university student Elizabeth. Her stomach knots with fear as much as any of her classmates’. In the past two years, she’s received her first bad grades. Exams now terrify her.

Funny how things aren’t scary until they’re relevant.

If exams were all this photogenic, I would take more of them...
If exams were all this photogenic, I would take more of them…

This week, after receiving uncomfortable grades on several exams, I’ve coped by reorganising my priorities. Although I apparently haven’t learned the material my professors hoped I would, I’ve learned a few other things:

…that I don’t disappoint my professor by missing questions. Professors don’t expect me to know all the answers–shocking, I know. They know I’m human, fallible, and sometimes confused. They care that I put in effort, pay attention, and consider new ideas. But bad exam grades don’t ruin their opinion of me.

…that worthwhile things require effortStuff was easy in middle school and high school. I never studied and rarely had homework; I finished it all in class. But life doesn’t have a “get out of homework free” card, and eventually, I have to work for something. I have to dedicate time and effort and recognise that I might still fail. And then I have to recognise …

…that time and effort are not wasted, no matter the outcome. If I won’t be successful, why waste the time trying? I think. Because I get a little further every time. Because I learn dedication and hard work even when I can’t see immediate results. Because time spent on worthwhile subjects is worthwhile time even if I fail the test.

Most importantly, I’ve learned that one bad exam grade does not define my ability. No matter how much I have–or haven’t–studied, no matter how I feel about the material, no matter my grade compared to everyone else’s… an exam grade doesn’t define me, my knowledge, or my potential.

And that’s pretty freeing. Life is worth the effort, but the process is worth more than the final exam. I mean, how many questions do you remember from your last exam? I’ll answer for myself: none. But I do remember the discussions we had in class. I remember the thoughts we explored, the new perspectives, and the inspiration to think deeper and more critically.

And that inspiration, that fresh breeze of ideas calling me to explore the new, uncomfortable, and exciting– that’s what matters.book