Normalizing Normalcy

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about self-worth. I know that might sound a little strange. Like, people have a sense of self-worth. They have standards that they set to quantify that sense. But how often do we really stop to think about it, or even whether or not having a metric is necessary to measure it?

To give myself a little background — I, unsurprisingly, have very low self-esteem. And who wouldn’t, growing up around the people that I did, and knowing the people that I do?

My paternal great-grandfather was one of those rags to riches guys in the truest sense. He was the son of opium addicts out in some po’dunk part of Texas. His father was lynched for killing a man, and his mother died of an overdose years later, because why not; but he still managed gain enough power to die a millionaire in the master bedroom of his four-story mansion during a time when being his shade of black could get you thrown in jail for just looking at someone the wrong way. My paternal grandmother dropped out of college to start her own newspaper, and had enough gall and determination to divorce her inheritance-rich husband and move her and her six children from integrated Los Angeles to segregated Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to cover the Montgomery bus boycotts at the height of the Civil Rights movement. My father dropped out of high school at sixteen to start college, and, by the time he was my age, was already a professor at 3 schools, married, and preparing to start a family. When I was born, he was in the middle of his second campaign for mayor of Atlanta, after already spending a good two decades in the political sphere. My parents’ casual acquaintances are the kinds of people who have books written about them by other people. My dad once, half-jokingly, claimed that he wouldn’t acknowledge me as his daughter until I had a Wikipedia page of my own.

And, see, this is just my family I’m talking about here — the people that I grew up around. This doesn’t even begin to cover those who I’ve casually encountered on my own out in the semi-adult world.

When I transferred to Howard University for my third year of college, and became an actual computer science major for the first time after two years of making a fool of myself, academically, I’d already felt a little insecure about the fact that I was, on average, roughly two years older than my intro classmates. But, the more I got to know some of them, the more behind I began to feel relative to them. It wasn’t just that I was taking the same classes two years after they were. It was also that they had been doing this kind of thing long before they ever even got to college. From the AP CS classes, to the coding summer camps back in high school, all the way to having a pre-existing portfolio of freelance projects they’d been working on since middle school — I just started to feel like everyone around me was on a completely different level. And when I went off to Google that summer for my internship, it felt like an avalanche had knocked me way back down the mountain that was my career path, crushing me with the weight of all that I had to live up to. Joining the Facebook group, Hackathon Hackers, and attending competitions around the country. Meeting people from there, and then reading articles about them in the New York Times the next day. All I could think was, “What am I doing with my life right now?” Like, seriously — what am I doing?

I had a lot of privileges growing up when it came to education and learning resources. My parents spent more money sending me to elementary school than most college students pay in tuition. I got my first computer when I was five years old because my dad was going through the University President phase of his life, and had some machines left over when they upgraded the labs; but all I did with it was play Secret Agent Barbie and draw shitty pictures on MS paint until odd hours of the night. I eventually started losing my rights to electronics when six year-old me learned how to use power tools, and destroyed a few expensive devices beyond repair. But even in the rare hours that I did have access to a desktop in middle and high school, I veered on the side of watching anime and writing fan fiction because it never even crossed my mind that there was more to life than that. It never occurred to me that I was actually wasting my time, and not just killing the hours in between school and sleep — with attending my above-average school being all that I thought I needed to be ahead of the rest.

For the past two years of my college career, I went into overdrive trying to compensate for all that I hadn’t done. I was taking open online courses to supplement my for-credit college ones. I was attending hackathons almost every weekend for a few months straight. This past semester, I was a tutor, a research assistant, and an intern at a start-up — logging up to 36 hours each week — all while taking a more-than-full load at school. I wasn’t sleeping. I was barely eating. But I still didn’t feel like it was enough.

I could feel myself on the verge of a mental breakdown (I know what that feels like, because it wouldn’t be the first time that I’ve had one), and I knew that I had to do something if I wanted to keep it from happening again. Which is the long-story explanation of what got me to the point of writing this article.

Everyone always says, “Stop comparing yourself to other people.” “They’re at a different point in their journey.” “Success can come at any point in life.” But this advice never actually comforted me. Mostly because it wasn’t even so much that I was afraid of not becoming successful fast enough — I was more worried that I wasn’t even on the right path to making it at all.

And when I say, “making it,” as you can probably gather from the examples of people I’ve given so far, I don’t simply mean finding a decent job and making enough monies to not have to live in a cardboard box under the highway. I’ve always wanted to be important, you know? Kind of like Loki, I’d always felt burdened with some glorious purpose. At the very least, I wanted my life to be Wikipedia article-worthy. And my entire sense of self-worth revolved around how realistic that seemed to me, given where I felt like I stood relative to the people I could tell were already on that path.

But recently I’ve been trying my hardest to battle with coming to terms with the possibility that that may not ever be me. That I may never be more than mildly above-average, if even that. Which, of course, isn’t to say that I’m giving up on trying; it’s more of a recognition that I should probably stop beating myself up over the mere idea of being normal. Finding the beauty in banality, and all that jazz.

For example, one of my favorite things to do right now is use the train as my primary mode of long-distance transportation. To get from DC to San Francisco this summer, I went on a week-and-a-half-long adventure — stopping in Atlanta, New Orleans, and Los Angeles, until I made it all the way up to the Bay. My entire journey had me talking to and interacting with pretty much nothing but the averagest of humans — farmers, retirees, ex-cons, and starving artists. I felt so calm and relaxed among them. I could sleep as much as I wanted; finish a few books; write a few poems; and just take the time out to really think about what was going on.

When I got to the Bay at the end of it, and I started telling random people about this little adventure, a lot of the response I got back was from people wondering how I could waste so much time like that. My excuse to them was that I had a two week period of unemployment anyways, between the end of my Spring internship and the beginning of my Summer one. But that was when it really started to hit me that I can’t imagine myself being “on” like I am during the school year for the rest of my life. To constantly be worrying forever about what I could be doing, and never being able to take time out for myself. It made me start to really think about the fact that my dad hasn’t gone a single day of being unemployed since he ran away from home 50 years ago, and has no plans for retirement.

I mean, don’t get me wrong — I like this learning and self-improvement path that I’ve been strolling down over the past couple of years. I like it much more than the aimless wandering I was doing for a long time before it. And, though I’m somewhat comfortable sprinting for the time being to help myself catch up to some of those who had a bigger head start, I’m slowly starting to come to terms with the fact that I am by no-means in good enough shape to keep going at this pace forever. That I may just always be behind someone, and that not coming in first isn’t going to be the worst thing in the world.

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