A couple weeks ago, I experienced what could be considered a breakthrough in the lab. I’d found the solution to a persistent problem that had, to that point, kept me from answering larger and deeper questions. This led to the proving or disproving a few established hypotheses and scientific progress was suddenly marching gloriously forward. My boss was extremely happy. Rather than hop up and down gleefully banging my hands together like some cymbal-clanging robot monkey, I simply acknowledged my good fortune and moved forward. This is what I do. My boss sat me down the next day and asked me about it. Did I realize what I’d just accomplished? Did I understand how far I’d come? Did I appreciate the significance? He was genuinely concerned about my seeming lack of enthusiasm in the face of success. Why, he asked.
There is only so much that I’m willing to tell anyone in answer to such a loaded question. Here’s what he got: I used to base my entire self-worth on who I was during a long-ish career in the military. My ambition was centered around impressing others more than myself and as result of or maybe because of this, I never really enjoyed any award, decoration, or promotion. They were always seen as the necessary next steps to an imaginary pinnacle of success based on some nebulous definition of the word. I was the golden boy right up until I wasn’t anymore, when none of the previous accomplishments meant much of anything. I now regret having never celebrated anything, but nothing that I ever did was even half as satisfying or rewarding as what I’m doing now. Success for me now lies simply in that satisfaction and the reward is having a ‘next step’ worth taking.
He nodded in the sage way that sages nod and then made his point: Success in science is a rare thing and subsequently should never be taken lightly. It needs to be the little light that one keeps in a jar and looks at when things inevitably stall and others see you as ineffectual or, worse, irrelevant. He spent many years on the outside looking in due to what others viewed as inconsequential research. His work has since been deemed eminently worthy, prescient in many ways, but he stressed the importance of always having something to hold onto. Success for him became like knots in a rope, not only easing the climb, but also helping him to hang on when the climbing stopped. Success breeds hope and hope is enough to keep going. And often, not quitting is success in and of itself.
The part of the story that I’m generally unwilling to relate revolves around the year 2004. A lifetime of trying to be all things to all people came to an abrupt end and I immediately lost track of who I was or was supposed to be. The loss of one’s identity, both literally and figuratively, is nothing short of devastating and for a much longer time than is comfortable to remember, I spent the lion’s share of every day and night talking myself out of suicide. I lack the vocabulary necessary to do justice to how badly I wanted to end things. I’m alive almost exclusively because of an unwillingness to burden others with the emotional baggage of my self-inflicted exit, but certainly not due to any overt sense of self-preservation. The previous sentence is packed to the gills with subtle answers to all kinds of psychological questions, but the greatest answer that I took away from the experience was to the question of how anyone could possibly do such a thing. It’s because it’s easy; preferable to the alternative. It is in almost every way the less painful option.
Depression boils every moment down to the starkest of choices: Live or die. It’s like being submerged in darkness while the little light that denotes the onward progression of life outside shines so brightly that living is painful to even consider. I don’t know how to describe it other than to say that choosing to live hurts. Life hurts. There’s nothing profound or groundbreaking there. When you get to the point where existence comes down to flipping a coin, it becomes fairly important to load the coin with something that makes the pain worthwhile. What I didn’t tell the head of the lab and probably never will, is that success for me begins and ends with wanting to wake up every morning and this has everything to do with being involved with something worthwhile.
Prior to this, I had never had anyone sit me down and demand that I acknowledge an achievement, though there had been sparks of this in the past. There was a non-commissioned officer at VMI who had taken great interest in helping an enlisted kid come there and succeed. He was the first person to salute me the day that I was commissioned and let me cry on his shoulder as he told me that I had exceeded his expectations, emotional because it was the first time in my life I’d heard such a thing; a commander thanking me and ordering me to take time off after returning from the desert in 2003; my graduate advisor a couple years ago telling me that she had seen students with more ability quit programs similar to that which I had just completed. These things should be fond memories instead of milestones. Success for me has always required someone else demanding that I acknowledge it.
In the subtle ways that all of our lives cross paths without our knowing, one man being unwilling to throw in the towel on his research a long time ago set the stage for his subsequent decision to allow an older graduate student with no background in biochemistry to give biomedical research a try. And now in a strange way we’re both finding vindication in previous refusals to give up. Something more profound has stuck with me in his appeal for self-recognition in this case and I can’t shake it no matter how hard I try. It’s as if this was always the thing that loaded the coin so that it fell and continues to fall on ‘Live’. Every day is a success.
Sir @ August 23, 2010