Hannah definitely has a point. Not that she is any more scared than the rest of us (I would dispute that), but that it’s scary. Life. Life is big and scary and the only way to deal with its big-and-scary-ness is to… well. Deal with it.
I’m afraid of lots of things. And here, I’m not talking about things like spiders (the only thing worse than seeing a spider is having seen a spider that then disappeared while you went to collect the death spray. Shudder) or heights, I’m talking about the big things. I’m talking about things like “what do you want to do with your life?” and that eternally distressing question “where do you see yourself in five years?” I swear, if everyone reacted outwardly to that question in the way that they react inwardly, PEOPLE WOULD STOP ASKING. My reaction would look something like this: it would start off as a minor panic attack, escalating rapidly to serious difficulty breathing and breaking out in hives. The distress of this situation would then cause me to become very afraid (as if the question didn’t instill enough of that!) and I would begin to cry, because that is what I do when I am afraid. (It’s also pretty much the only time I cry. Ever. I don’t cry because I am sad, I cry because I’m scared.) It would all continue downhill from there until I was a sobbing lump on the floor, struggling to breathe in the way that small children do when they have been crying too hard. It’s a terrible question, stop asking it.
Mostly, I’m scared that my dreams are too big for me, like those one-size-fits-all socks that they give to you on planes but if you ever actually try to wear them are always too big and bunch uncomfortably under the toes and make you walk funny. I’m afraid that my dreams are like one-size-fits-all socks that don’t actually fit me at all.
I work in research (biology, to be exact), but I want to be a real scientist. One of the hard-core ones with a PhD and millions of dollars of funding to change the world. I want to change the world. I want the millions of dollars of funding. I want a lab full of dedicated people making exciting discoveries and curing (well, more preventing in my case) diseases. I’m taking a huge risk with all of these desires.
First up, I need to get a PhD. From where? Who knows. I really want to study in the United States, but the whole graduate school admissions process is ridiculously daunting – especially when virtually every school has an entirely separate page and a hundred extra requirements for international students. It’s scary when you know that hundreds of people apply and tens of people get selected; when you know that you’re competing for funding in a system you don’t really understand against a whole bunch of people with completely different educational backgrounds to yours. It’s terrifying to sit standardized tests for the first time in your life and to not really know what constitutes “good” or even “good enough.” It’s scary to ask people to serve as references, not knowing if it’s going to work out or whether asking them to write seven recommendation letters for one person is a crazy request. It’s particularly terrifying to select a list of schools, work out what you need and decide to apply, not knowing if the hours, the tears and the hundreds of dollars you poured into it will even be worth it.
Science itself is a pretty big risk, not even in the smaller-scale ways – sometimes your experiment doesn’t work, sometimes your hypothesis is completely wrong, sometimes you’re going in the wrong direction or looking at the wrong thing, sometimes your project doesn’t get funded. It’s a risk in a much bigger way than that.
To quote one of my undergraduate professors, “Why administer a vaccine if you could design one?”
And, in that one sentence, we capture the biggest risk of science: we have the potential to change the world and save millions of lives; or we could fail to discover a single thing and spend our whole lives trying to help lots of people and failing to help a single one. I know that all research has its purpose – a negative result will tell someone else what isn’t happening – but the thought of devoting my life to helping people and then failing to help even one, is very scary. It’s scary because of the unfulfilled potential, the chance you had but didn’t succeed in taking, no matter how hard you tried. It’s the thing that you could have done, but didn’t manage to actually do.
I want to be successful and I want to be happy. I’m scared that I’m going about it all wrong or that I can’t have both. Or that I can’t have one without the other, or that I don’t want one without the other. I don’t even know what I want and I certainly don’t know where I will be in five years. I barely know where I’ll be tomorrow. I just want to know that it’s all going to be okay – that it’s okay to want professional success and want to help people and take a risk. That it’s okay to aim high, even though the risk of failure multiplies with every new aim. That it’s okay to want not just high-flying success but a happy and safe personal life; to know that the feminists before us fought for us to have more than a choice – they fought for us not to have to choose.
I’m confused, I’m scared and I’m worried that I’m just the too-small feet in the airplane socks, hobbling awkwardly down the aisle.