Humble pie

Working and studying in the field of history, I’ve slowly realized how important it is to approach the process of creating history with a healthy dose of humility. I guess that’s true of any area of study, actually, but I’ll stick with history for now. It’s a field where it can be very easy to fall into the mindset of trying to impress people with your knowledge, put forward a confident face, and emphasize what you do know, glossing over what you don’t. People may think this will get them a job – and maybe it will – but ultimately the ability to be a historian comes in the moments where you know that you don’t know…instead you have to find out.

Beyond that, you need to have a gratefulness for the people around you who make it possible for you to do your work – the business people in your museum, the custodians, the people whose history you capitalize on. You have to be willing to sometimes say, “I don’t know…Can you tell me more?” As I’ve been working on this fellowship, it’s been tough to step outside of my comfort bubble and share half-formed thoughts or guess at the use of bits of ceramics sitting on a table in front of me. I’ve felt stupid. Then I’ve realized that this is not about knowing everything, it’s about being willing to learn. And to learn, you have to take risks and sometimes end up humbled.

You have to listen as much as you talk. You have to be willing to sit and listen to long stories and source the public for their knowledge, because ultimately you’re telling this story for them and from their past. You can’t have the attitude that you’re above people because at the end of the day you depend on them. Historians only exist because there are people to write history about, and we need to have a sense of gratefulness to and appreciation for those people who we use to create our academic and professional careers. Writing my senior thesis was humbling in that I realized that the paper was not about me impressing my peers or a grad school program – it was about bringing to light and giving a voice to people who previously didn’t have one, letting them be as much a part of the historical narrative as the famous people who have dominated it for so long.

I guess I wish we approached history the way I wish we approached parties: instead of showing off and getting wrapped up in peacocking and telling our own stories, we would better serve the world by seeking out those not included in the conversation and asking them to share their own experiences. We should realize it’s a privilege to have the opportunity to do what we do – there are so many factors that have enabled us to be doing whatever we are doing. Not everyone gets the chance to pursue their passion as a career. Lots of amateur historians and history lovers who by some turn of fate or another didn’t get to pursue a career in history would love to be where we are, delving into archives and seeing behind the scenes.

I was humbled the other day to see a comment from a community member on a photo of my fellowship class asking whether the program accepts people 55 and older. It made me realize that while I’ve been whining about my schedule, other people would be more than happy to take my place. Since then, it’s reminded me to be grateful for the chance to be here. When working in and studying history are exasperating, I wish we would remember how privileged we are. And I wish we would remember how many people have stories we still need to tell.

One foot in front of the other

The entire car ride up here, I felt my stomach churning with anxiety, my chest tightening with every thought of the unknown that lay ahead. By the time the car turned onto Main Street, I had tears in my eyes from the stress and I thought I was going to blow chunks.

Once we pulled into the small gravel lot though, it was time for action. The next few minutes were a blur of new faces and signing papers and trying to think of something clever to say but drawing a complete blank. I took the keys and said thank you and hopped back into my parents’ car to drive to my new summer lodgings, a weathered, wood-paneled addition onto the back of a brick Federalist house, bookending the finish of a tree-lined street.

My excitement picked up as I ran up and down the stairs, exploring the nooks and crannies of my new home and deciding which room to pick. We hauled my obscene amount of newly purchased professional clothes and bags of tattered “I guess these are still nice enough” shoes into the spacious, if a bit run-down, room. Then my parents suggested we go for a walk through the historic district before they said good-bye for the night.

As we headed back down the road, underneath the shade of the trees, I turned to my mom and said I missed her and dad already. My stomach squeezed at the thought of going back to have a proper conversation with my new co-workers. I’m not famous for talking well in groups, and while I’ve made vast improvements in my social anxiety, the pressure of making a good impression on people I need to get along well with for nine weeks was a bit overwhelming.

But somehow, I hugged my parents, and went to have an awkward but interesting conversation with my newfound colleagues. Little did I know I would be laughing until I cried with some of them, swapping stories about crushes, and staying up way too late for recent college students who now have to wake up at 7:30am.

First weeks are always incredibly stressful, especially if you’re an already anxious person; meeting people whose names you can’t remember, navigating new relationships, figuring out how to answer all the “nice to meet you” questions. Even worse is hearing the laundry list of assignments, rules, and protocol and wondering how on earth you’re going to accomplish this all without crying yourself to sleep every night. This week was no different, but I was incredibly blessed to be able to connect with the people around me like I’ve never been able to do before. This meant that, while my chest still felt like caving in at times, I was able to stretch myself rather than just feeling completely overwhelmed and defeated. I guess the following is a stream-of-consciousness collection of lessons I’ve been learning over the start of this journey:

Other people are stressed too. I tend to assume that because I struggle with anxiety, I’m the only one who’s having a tough time, but that’s not true. People might only give you little glimpses of it, but if you pay attention, or maybe just even put yourself in their shoes, you might realize that other people are overwhelmed too. It can be helpful to be understanding and cut people a break, and to feel less alone, like you’re the only one struggling. Similarly, I think sometimes you need to open up and let people know you’re overwhelmed – nothing major, but just a bit of honesty with someone who you think might understand. You might receive an obnoxious pat reply, you might get some encouragement, you might find you’re not alone. But it’s good to be genuine. In my opinion, people can’t hate genuine. And it does more good than pretending you’re superior to others.

Stretching yourself to your limits is terrifying, but it really does help you to grow.

Don’t approach life trying to prove yourself to other people, but be humble and willing to ask about what you don’t know and remember how much we all have left to learn. Classmate and colleagues can sometimes, admittedly, feel like competition, but we’re all here to learn from one another. We all bring unique experiences and backgrounds to the table, so it’s worth learning from each other rather than, a) beating ourselves up for not knowing enough, or b) dropping names and dates to prove we’re hot stuff.

It’s not about being the best, but doing the best you can.

At the end of the day, whatever work you do isn’t about furthering your career, but rather contributing to your field, and ultimately to the world. Approaching work with this kind of attitude is humbling, and can help take the pressure of impressing people off of projects and let us reconnect with the joy of doing what we’re passionate about.

It’s okay to be a quiet person. Some times this week, I’ve felt guilty for not talking enough or not volunteering an answer because I was too nervous or not being able to think of something to ask a person I found myself standing next to. I’ve felt bad for having a quiet voice that gets talked over instead of commanding attention, for being tentative instead of self-assured. But then I contrast my experience with the self-assured people who seem to have it all together with the down-to-earth, vulnerable, relatable people who connect with you without pretenses, and I realize that, while it’s always good to continue pushing myself to be less tentative and fearful, I don’t need to be ashamed of being someone who listens more than she talks. We need people like that in the world to create safe havens where we can be ourselves, not be judged, and feel understood and comfortable.

And I have to cut myself some slack some times…we can’t do everything perfectly. If I don’t say much at a meal, that’s okay. I’m not one for small talk; I’d rather have a one-on-one or small group conversation where we really get to know each other or come up with inside jokes or really, genuinely laugh until I cry…the kind of laugh where you look ridiculous but are in such good company you don’t even care because you know they won’t judge you.

Even when I make “mistakes,” what matters is that I’m trying. I’m stretching myself a little further every day to overcome fear, push through anxiety, and dismiss hesitancy. While other people, myself included, may only see my shortcomings compared to an ideal of gregariousness and forthrightness, I know how far I’ve come. They don’t know that I used to never speak in class. They don’t know that two years ago, I considered quitting college. It’s easy to let shame darken our hearts because of societal stigma or bad reactions we’ve gotten in the past. Celebrate the obstacles you have overcome; let them remind you of the strength you have built and the mileage you have traveled to get to this place. The things that have cut you up inside (or perhaps even out) and left you broken have given your a story, made you wiser, stronger, more loving. The world needs broken people to pour love out into lives of others. I supposed there’s a time and place for a confident facade, but more and more I wish we made more room for an honest conversation.

More importantly, I firmly believe that, as cheesy as it sounds, empathy and humility can make a big difference in communities, relationships, group dynamics, and our lives if we let them. If we’re vulnerable, we can have deeper, more satisfying relationships, but we have to open up if we want others to see who we are so they can love us. We have to be present if we want to make connections that make an experience rich and fulfilling.

Girl talk.

Last week, I was expressing my discouragement over the immaturity of the men I interact with to a mentor of mine and was met with advice I’ve heard time and again, “While you’re waiting for a good guy, invest in your female friendships.” I completely see the merit in saying this, but I also stand by my reply to this woman: “Yeah, well the problem is that those are pretty crappy too.” Those words have continued to ring true in my life since I spoke them, so I figured I would share some of my brewing thoughts on the subject, as intimidating as it is so broach such a personal – and political – subject, where it’s so easy to say one wrong thing and set all of social media ablaze.

As much as I’ve agonized over the poor treatment I’ve received at the hands of men over the past few years, I would say that the hurt I’ve experienced at the hands of female friends has been equally, if not more, devastating. I spend a good chunk of my time lamenting with other women about the lameness of guys — how on and off again their affection is, how judgmental and condescending they can be, and how they can fixate on another woman who isn’t as good of a person as you. But if I think about it, I’ve experienced all these same types of betrayals by many of my female friends as well.

As what I predict might one day be called a Third Wave of Feminism has exploded in the past several months, it’s been interesting to see how some women I know will post photos at marches and then cut me down in a text a few weeks later. I’m a big believer in the mantra that “actions speak louder than words” — as much as I love words and the power of written language, if your actions contradict your fine phrases, your declarations really mean nothing. I’ve seen a lot of what my sister dubbed “Instagram Feminism” in the past months; women who make a show of decrying institutional injustice, but return to real life, if you will, the next day and cut down, ignore, and mistreat their fellow woman. What is especially baffling to me is when women pour their efforts and energy into the men in their life at the neglect – or even expense – of supporting their female friends and coworkers.

I’m not one to say that I’m super happy to be a woman or anything — I’ve had my period too many times for that. But I will say there is something special when you get together and really bond over the shared experience of the uniqueness of the female life cycle (including a good complaining session about the menstrual cycle.) We all have some common ground in terms of our experience and outlook on life that men will never understand. I think there’s something really beautiful that happens when we come together and open up about our hearts and lives and embrace and support one another through the unique trials and triumphs of womanhood, helping each other find our way and our identity as our own perspectives shift and the world around us evolves.

I know I’m as guilty as anyone of the aforementioned critiques. I’ve never been much into politics, and I’m guessing some women I know have judged me at one point or another for not marching or sharing op-eds on social media or ranting about the news. I’ve had my share of anger about the comings and goings of this election cycle and its aftermath, but I’ve ultimately decided that it’s not worth risking my mental health to get worked up about things I feel I have no control over. I’m not judging others who do, but I will say I’ve found more fulfillment in looking around me and seeing the individual needs of the people in my own life and doing what small things I can to try and support them.

I can do even more in this regard, but I think this is how change happens — little actions and words of encouragement. Asking people to meals. Forming small groups of friends to create solidarity to support one another in the face of both larger political and cultural trends as well as the “small” barrages of life. I’ve experienced some tough crap in my life, and it’s only been made worse when my fellow women have not stood by me, or have even judged and mocked me.

I’m not saying you have to be best friends with every woman you meet; you should evaluate people based on their character and actions and break off friendships that are more toxic than uplifting. But if you call yourself a feminist (or even if you don’t), take time to consider how well your actions and attitudes align with that label. Think about how you can better support other women. If we believe that we are not treated fairly by society, then we need to be the first ones to set the tone by treating one another with respect, appreciation, sacrificial kindness, attentiveness, and dignity.

How to be a Better Human: Food for Thought About Friendship

This is a longer version of a post I wrote for “Around the Grove,” the student blog of the Unviersities at Shady Grove. I’m also considering writing a series of posts called “How to be a Better Human” with my unsolicited advice about being a kinder, more compassionate member of human society who gives back, and this will be a precursor to that.

If you’ve logged onto your Facebook recently, you might have noticed that Facebook is celebrating their “birthday” with a holiday they created called “Friend Day.” Now, personally, I don’t have a great track record with having good friendships in the last few years, so I thought it might be interesting to reflect a bit on friendship in my first blog post this spring semester. A lot of people say, after all, that the friendships you make in college are part of what makes your experience so meaningful. The flip side of this, of course, is that bad friendships or a lack of strong friendships can make a college experience really difficult.

The beginning of the semester tends to be a time when people have friendship on their minds: getting to see friends from last semester again, trying to make new friends if you just transferred, meeting new people in your classes, etc. I figured I would offer a few unsolicited pieces of advice that I’ve learned from experience of the years on the subject, particularly as they relate to starting back at school:

  1. Be open to making new friends (even if you’re a senior.) I’ve heard seniors tell friends they don’t want to bother with meeting new people because they’re about to leave anyways. You never know when great opportunities will come your way, and you might be surprised how many friends will drop out of your life once you move on to a new place. So be careful about writing people off or closing yourself off to the potential of forging new friendships. If you’re not a senior, it can be easy to get comfortable with your friend group and neglect making new friends. There are lots of interesting people in the world who are worth getting to know and who might expand your horizons and enrich your life.
  2. Be open to being friends with people you wouldn’t normally hang out with. Some of the most unexpected people have ended up being my best, most loyal friends over the years, so don’t write people off as not your type too quickly. Also, be aware that some people take a longer time to warm up to people and open up to others and show their true personality (like yours truly!) We all have a tendency to be attracted to the loudest person in the room, but consider trying to get to know the quiet people on the periphery; I’ve come to learn they can make great friends and have a lot to offer (though maybe I’m a little biased!)
  3. Welcome new students. All of us undergrads at USG have experienced being a transfer student. Maybe it went well for you or maybe it was really lonely and stressful. Either way, have some empathy for those who are just arriving and welcome them: introduce yourself, include them in conversation, and just be open to getting to know them. It’s sadly not unheard of for some people to look down on newbies, but we’ve all been the new person…Do you really want to be the jerk who forms a clique and excludes others?
  4. Cut off toxic friendships. This doesn’t directly relate to school life, but I think new years and fresh beginnings can be a great reminder to clean out toxic habits, thoughts, and people from our lives. A lot of us at USG have moved from other schools or places, and I’m sure many have experienced the frustration of friendships we cherished fizzling out. It’s helpful to remember that some relationships are just meant for a certain part of our lives; people come and go. If someone isn’t invested in you and prioritizing your friendship at the same level that you are and you find yourself more hurt than uplifted by that relationship maybe it’s time to let go.
  5. Even though you’re busy, remember to let people know you’re invested in them. Nothing kills a relationship like an unresponsive friend. So even though you have a lot on your plate, remember to take a moment here and there to do these things for friends and loved ones:
    1. Ask them how they’re doing
    2. Tell them why you appreciate them
    3. Leave them a note or send an encouraging text
    4. Let them know you are thinking of them
    5. Respond to their emails, texts, etc. in a timely manner (or let them know you will get back when you have the time)
  6. Respect others’ points of view and be a good listener. Obviously, our political and social climate right now is very tense and full of harsh words. As a community of scholars, I think it’s crucial for us to continue to respect the opinions of others, listen to their point of view, and try to be understanding rather than just dismissing or insulting whatever we don’t agree with. A lot of people feel powerless right now, but, as corny as it sounds, I think the communities we create in the little worlds we each inhabit can have ripple effects into the world around us. And we can make a huge impact on the people around us – for better or for worse – in our daily interactions.

Well, with that, I think I’ve said more than my fair share, but I hope that you all will enter this semester open to new relationships and that you’ll be able to find some kindred spirits to brighten your life among the swamp of papers, projects, and textbook readings!

Best of luck with this new semester!

You’ve got a friend in me

This was posted on the Universities at Shady Grove‘s student blog Around the Grove on February 3, 2017. You can read my other posts here.

If you’ve logged onto your Facebook recently, you might have noticed that Facebook is celebrating their “birthday” with a holiday they created called “Friend Day.” I thought it might be interesting to reflect a bit on friendship in my first blog post this spring semester. A lot of people say, after all, that friendships are the best, most lasting part of the college experience. The flip side of this, of course, is that bad friendships or a lack of strong friendships can make a college experience really difficult.

The beginning of the semester tends to be a time when people have relationships on their minds: getting to see old friends again, trying to make new ones, meeting new people in your classes, etc. I figured I would offer a few unsolicited pieces of advice that I’ve learned over the years that might be helpful as you start your semester:

  1. Be open to making new friends (even if you’re a senior.) I’ve heard seniors tell friends they don’t want to bother with meeting new people because they’re about to leave anyways. Even if you’re not a senior, it can be easy to get comfortable with your friend group and close yourself off to new friendships. However, there are lots of interesting people in the world who are worth getting to know and who might expand your horizons and enrich your life…You never know what’s around the bend!
  2. Be open to being friends with people you wouldn’t normally hang out with. Some of the most unexpected people have ended up being my best, most loyal friends over the years, so don’t write people off as not your type too quickly. Also, be aware that some people take a longer time to warm up to people and show their true personality. We all have a tendency to be attracted to the loudest person in the room, but consider trying to get to know the quiet people on the periphery; I’ve come to learn they can make great friends and have a lot to offer.

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    Friends of a feather flock together 😉

  3. Welcome new students. All of us undergrads at USG have experienced being a transfer student. Have some sympathy for those who are just arriving and welcome them: introduce yourself, include them in conversation, and just be open to getting to know them.
  4. Cut off toxic friendships. I’m sure many have experienced the frustration of friendships we cherished fizzling out. It’s helpful to remember that some relationships might just meant for a certain part of your life; people come and go. If someone isn’t invested in you and prioritizing your friendship at the same level that you are and you find yourself more hurt than uplifted by that relationship, maybe it’s time to let go.

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    USG believes in promoting a culture of care (photo courtesy of USG)

  5. Even though you’re busy, remember to let people know you’re invested in them. Nothing kills a relationship like an unresponsive friend. So even though you have a lot on your plate, remember to take a moment here and there to ask friends and loved ones how they are or remind them that you appreciate them.
  6. Respect others’ points of view and be a good listener, inside and outside of friendships. Obviously, our political and social climate right now is very tense and full of harsh words. As a community of scholars, I think it’s crucial for us to continue to respect the opinions of others, listen to their point of view, and try to be understanding rather than just dismissing or insulting whatever we don’t agree with.

A lot of people feel powerless to make change right now, but, as corny as it sounds, I think the communities we create in the little worlds we each inhabit can have ripple effects into the world around us. And we can make a huge impact on the people around us – for better or for worse – in our daily interactions and relationships.

Best of luck with this new semester, Shady Grovers!

Having trouble making friends or want to be more involved on campus? Sign up for USG’s weekly newsletter for on-campus events, and check out these other great campus resources:

And, of course, keep checking Around the Grove for news on campus events and student lfie!