“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” - Rainer Maria Rilke
I took some advice a couple of years ago.
Back when I was still in college there was a chance summer, in 2009 to be exact, during which I ended up in a particular professor’s office. It was a seemingly random and unconnected chain of events that led me there. By that time, my very short life experience had taught me one real thing: do work that is meaningful, or risk loosing my fire and potential to lethargy and apathy. My brief stint in corporate America had left me feeling like my brain was rotting inside my skull. My attempts to find a summer job in the development sector had yielded a couple of awkward interviews with the World Bank, but no position. My head was spinning. I was not qualified for the jobs I was seeking. I needed tangible skills.
I finally decided I was ok with not earning any money that summer. I remember I was at a crossroads. I asked myself, what do I want out of life? What do I care about? I wrote to my local PBS station and asked if they could use a young person who was hungry to learn about the world and about herself. I wrote to others as well. The responses were overall positive.
At some point I cast an email to a professor in the African studies department at the University of South Florida, where my parents live in Tampa. My email was forwarded to another professor with a funny name. It was a shot in the dark. I said I was eager to learn social science research methods, and that I’d give my time in return for mentorship that summer. The professor told me to come in to his office at 1pm the next day.
I went in prepared for an interview. Dressed the part. Had my elevator speech and padfolio at hand. I hoped with near desperation that a 19 year old with far too many questions swirling in her head would finally find some luck that day. An answer, perhaps.
Dr. Sultan and I met again two years later on another continent. June 2011. Nairobi, Kenya. I felt like I had been sucked though a wormhole when we reunited in Africa: the land of both of our dreams. His of childhood, adolescence, the Sahara, old loves, and the lingering aroma of coffee. Mine of answers lived into. Who was I again?
We met several times over the course of a week. Long and thoughtful conversations. Never heavy. Always light and lighthearted. But intense, subtly.
I was different by then. My values were the same, but I was not the 19 year old college student who was living on the periphery of life. For all I knew when I first met Dr. Sultan in 2009, my life was a full one, my universe complete– except for these questions– and they bothered me so.
But by 2011 I had seen just enough to realize that up till then in my life, I had only traipsed the very edge and had not dove in. I had lived in East Africa for one year by then. And I knew just enough to understand that up till then, all that I had felt in my life were just shadows of real emotions. I was a child on whom the true beauty of a life wholly lived was lost. Up till then in my life I had lived only in my own mind.
Dr. Sultan and I walked to an Ethiopian restaurant in the living room of a lady’s home one Friday evening. My mind was preoccupied as usual. I was expressing to him my concerns about one thing or another. Work, friends, love, purpose, intention, happiness. Matatu routes, time zones, a new city, a new pulse. I’m confused, I’m hurting, I’m alone, I’m lonely. How do I do this again? At some point he looked over at me and said something I only slowly began to absorb.
There was no interview.
I sat in Dr. Sultan’s office that chance afternoon in 2009 and he did not ask me about my resume. He did not ask me the behavioral interview questions I was prepared to answer– about a time when I worked on a team or showed leadership ability when no one else rose to the challenge. He did not ask me what skills I would bring to the table.
What he did ask was: Who are you? What do you want? What are your dreams? And what would you like to gain while you’re with me?
I think back, and it is like the conversation that started in 2009 just simply continued. It continues even now.
When I was 19 I lived by very strict rules. Discipline was essential. Focus, determination, goals. I was obsessed. No distractions.
One day at lunch Dr. Sultan asked if I would like a glass of wine.
I replied that I didn’t drink.
He said that it was ok that I was 20 and that I’m technically not supposed to drink for another year– one glass was fine. I replied that my non-drinking had nothing to do with my age, or laws, or even morality. Dr. Sultan said, what then? Would you object if I dipped a Q-tip in some liquor and rubbed it on your teeth?
Incredulous, I said no of course not, but that’s absurd!
Laughing earnestly, Dr. Sultan warned me then about having hard and fast rules. Discipline is a good thing, but the reasons for having rules can be lost when they are followed indiscriminately, he said.
I entertained these ideas– and there were so many we tossed back and forth that summer. I can’t say I could understand all of his advice and musings. What I remember is that we laughed a lot. I went home really happy every evening. I didn’t have all my answers, but this I was ok with. I learned my research methods, yes, but I was just getting started with my real education. My reality was expanding. I was not aware of this at the time.
I have recently been asking myself a lot of tough questions.
Fear and insecurities. It’s ugly to look at. Easier to push these away to the recesses of my mind and distract myself with the everyday. But every now and then life makes you confront them. A wake up call. A point where bad habits start biting you in the ass. The point where you can’t pretend any longer. Life becomes volatile. The slightest provocation can prove terribly painful.
I wrote to Dr. Sultan this time. He responded swiftly, poignantly: Please remember that you have about 3 times the life you have already lived ahead of you. You have time to adjust to everything.
Oceans and decades later, perhaps I will have adjusted. Perhaps I won’t be so resistant to change. Or be so afraid of myself.
For months I thought long and hard about the advice Dr. Sultan gave me in the restaurant in the Ethiopian lady’s living room:
Don’t be too rational. Don’t logic your way through life. Make mistakes. Screw up. Get messy.
I took his advice.