I was sitting in a booth in a sparsely populated bar (or what qualifies for one here in Princeton) last Wednesday, when during a lull of conversation, the friend sitting across from me made eye contact and asked, “Are you happy?” Caught off guard, I paused for a moment before slowly replying, “I think that my default mood tends to be a bit lower than most people’s, so I don’t know how to answer that.”*
I think the appropriate answer would have been a resounding “yes.” The four of us were coming to the end of the period in January known to Princeton second-year graduate students as “Generals week(s).” Generals referring to the benchmark exams all graduate students take in their second year, in which they present their research plans and progress in front of a committee of professors who will decide whether the student is adequately prepared to be formally acknowledged as a “PhD candidate,” whether they require further preparation, or even if they might be better off leaving the program. Two of us had passed our Generals exams, and the other two had finished the exam and were waiting on their results. The occasion was celebratory – we had just finished what was recognized as one of the most stressful events in a PhD – yet the mood seemed almost sombre.
“It was pretty anti-climatic.” “It went alright.” “My committee didn’t ask me about anything I actually studied.” “It doesn’t matter how you did – you passed.” “What do I do now? What am I supposed to worry about now that Generals is over?”
That was the lingering thought. Now what? The poser of the initial question continued (I’m paraphrasing here), “I don’t think people living in the first-world worry any less than people living in the third-world. They’re just different worries. Instead of ‘Will my family have anything to eat tonight?’ it’s ‘Is so-and-so cheating on me?’ Even when we have everything we need, we invent things to worry about.” Which sounds oh so entitled, but not entirely untrue.
In the past few years, I’ve grown accustomed to functioning very well under pressure. Given a certain crisis, or expectations and deadlines for a certain task, I work more efficiently, and find it easier to be more mentally and emotionally focused. Ironically, now that my life is absent of major personal or academic crises, I find myself more restless and unfocused. It’s not the lack of tasks to do, but perhaps the lesser gravitas of those tasks. Or perhaps the vacuum that’s left when encouragement and support from peers tends to diminish as you lose those causes to support. Last night I drunkenly penned a birthday message to a best friend of mine, telling him I loved him and missed him, and expressing hopes that we could talk soon, even if he just wanted to rant about his daily life to me. Perhaps I just want to donate a bit of worry to someone else’s life for now.
*In retrospect, this was a pretty stupid thing to say. I have no idea of comparing my emotional states to others’. I guess I meant that I’ve always perceived myself to be more morbid in personality than most others around me, something which I have come to terms with.