“I hope you need this now
‘Cuz I know I still do.”
– Until the Day I Die, Story of the Year
It is not at all a secret that when we face danger and uncertainty — or even, as Blue, my landlady’s cat above tells us, discomfort and fatigue — we retreat deep into ourselves. We surround ourselves with the comfort of what we know and who we think we are. I have days when I simply don’t want to get out of bed, because what awaits out there — beyond my quilt and the immediate vicinity of my bed and the stacks of Everyman’s Russian classics piled high on my bedside table — is a little too much to handle.
I work best when my body, mind, and soul are in war mode. When I’m too comfortable, I feel lethargic, and I find myself held captive by my own illusion of ease. To complete a task successfully, I must put my battle gear on, have a plan of attack, face my fears and procrastination, and address the magnitude of the task head on. There is no other way to do it. No one can vanquish our enemies for us — this must be done by the sword held by our own hand, thrusted with our own courage summoned from within.
My four years here in Cambridge have taught me a lot about the dangers of unstable mental health. My PhD friends have fallen into the abyss of depression, and boy, did they struggle as they crawled their way out of it. And though I think I am a pretty laid-back supervisor, my students too have burst into tears in our supervisions (much to my own surprise, as this happened twice), burdened by the fear and anxiety of not doing, understanding, or writing enough.
I like to post pretty pictures of Cambridge, because it is indeed one of the most magical places I have ever lived in. (But considering the places I grew up in, perhaps it is not that hard for Cambridge to claim the top spot.) However, I do this with full consciousness that these well-kept lawns and enchanting buildings mask a rather uncomfortable reality underneath: that of students trying to stay sane amidst pressures to produce “results” or achieve “firsts”.
It occurred to me that a useful asset — even more valuable than one’s IQ — that could help one survive in an ultra-competitive place such as Cambridge is emotional intelligence. This kind of intelligence is unique because it is tailored to every individual’s dispositions and temperament, and cannot be learned from a book. We may learn of ways to sharpen our emotional intelligence, but essentially it doesn’t come in a memorizable formula or in iambic pentameter — or perhaps it could, if one understands oneself in such a way. It is not knowledge that could be acquired out there; rather, it is like a gem that must be uncovered from deep within.
Emotional intelligence is about knowing what drives oneself to one’s limits, and what those limits are. It might change with every new task and circumstance, but it is in essence an introspective form of self-inquisition, based on the question, “How do I operate?” At times we might find incredible things about ourselves, or disappointing things deep down we know we need to change. But one thing is for sure: we discover that we ourselves are full of wonderment and surprises.
As I myself am trudging through this final leg of my PhD, I come across moments (such as this afternoon; this hour; this very second) where my strength falters. I have dug deep in my inspiration well, and have found nothing — not a single drop of ink or inspiration to nourish this blank Word document with, or to launch me on one of my intensive writing sprees. But this, too, shall pass: I just needed to get out of the library and to stop thinking about polygamy for a second, to be able to think about it clearer the next minute.
I need only remind myself with His words:
“Verily, with hardship, there is release.”
– Qur’an, 94:6