A WhatsApp-text popped up on my phone, and a notification “ding” tone followed. The screen showed Shelly’s message in a blinding glow. An untimely text from her, although I liked her lots – a very outgoing, intelligent colleague. A promising scholar in the making.
“I went to your sharing seminar,” her message read. “Your research is innovative and engineering-ish… it solves a real problem.”
But I couldn’t put my finger on what “-ish” implies. I am not able to gracefully take praise or compliments.
She meant well, I know, for she congratulated me on a major success in securing a major research fund.
My Grant Application was Accepted… So Why Do I Feel like This?
It was already 7 p.m., and I was still at the office. It was windowless, silent and dimly-lit. I only kept the desktop lamp on, contemplating failure. Spotify played “Fix You” by Coldplay. It was timely, but all I heard was the first verse:
When you try your best, but you don’t succeed
When you get what you want, but not what you need
When you feel so tired, but you can’t sleep
Stuck in reverse
I thought about how badly I felt last year when another grant proposal I submitted was rejected. And how harsh the feedback was. It seems I lied again and again – both to myself and to my closest colleagues – saying that I was alright. I thought about the journal articles and proposals that had been rejected. I said that I was okay. But there had been a feeling that dragged me from behind. I had so many ideas but couldn’t speed up and catch up with my own mind.
The Bitterness of Old Defeats and Snubbed Colleagues
I also thought about some colleagues who failed to get grants or weren’t promoted, even though they have always worked their arses off. Sometimes I would see a couple of them working until 11 p.m. at their offices. When I met with one colleague, Steven, there were signs of exhaustion on his face, frustration in his eyes, and resentment in his tone. This is the trap of academia. Even when I had accomplished something, my mind was stuck on times I’d failed in the past. And on friends who could not share my success in the present.
“Resentful” might not be the right adjective for Steven’s feelings. “Indignant”? Close enough. This kind of feeling cannot be described in one or two adjectives. As I started to face the same worries, a new feeling emerged.
What were those feelings?
All surging together like waves.
A tsunami forms.
What does that look like? My friend Wen advises her digital storytelling students “Show, don’t tell.” And so I will try to paint you a picture of the emotions rising inside me:
In the beginning, it was as calm as a lake, for I had expected the worst to happen.
At that moment, I closed the door, with a quiet “click” of the lock behind me. I should have fucking slammed the fucking dumb door shut.
But I didn’t. I’m a well-mannered and restrained person.
The water was now ankle-deep. I had to drag myself back to my office, pack my belongings, and get the hell out of there as soon as possible. I could have kicked any-fucking-thing in sight, like the high school me, who got rejected by my crush on the spot. That was a horse kick to a chair, so loud that everyone stopped and watched, as the chair fell to the ground.
But I didn’t. Chairs don’t have feelings. Nor did I want to draw attention.
The first wave of self-doubt hit my stomach. My head drooped as I admitted defeat, but I tried to walk upright. The face mask I wore finally had a useful function: to not let people see me bite my lips so hard, as I tried to recover from the pain. So I walked on.
The second wave of frustration slapped my face. I continued to trawl my body along the busy street. The blinding, prying eyes were scanning my face, but no one actually cared. I took a deep breath and blinked away my tears. I coughed away a lump in my throat… no, I didn’t cry.
The third wave of fury struck a final blow. I imagined myself waving my fists frantically in despair. My right fist hammered hard on my left chest, as I vocalised my anger, from a growl, a howl to a hysterical scream. To nowhere. At no one. The thought of doing all these, on this very street, almost escaped me.
But it didn’t. The playlist shuffled. Its message was timely. Robert Smith reminded me, as he sang:
“I tried to laugh about it
Cover it all up with lies
I tried to laugh about it
Hiding the tears in my eyes
‘Cause boys don’t cry
Boys don’t cry”
“Ding.” A WhatsApp notification brought me back to reality. “Dinner is ready. Come home quick.”
The water I had imagined receded when I got off the bus. I drew a long sigh. The angst still remained, but the primal tide had subsided.
I turned my key softly, opened the door slowly, and closed it very gently.
In front of me, what I saw was a tranquil beach, and when I washed ashore there was a feast served hot before me.
“Work can wait; dinner cannot.”