This past Sunday, I laughed along with the hundred or so other people filling the pews at New Canaan’s First Presbyterian Church as the pastor read a poem by Richard Newman entitled Bless Their Hearts.
In it, Newman makes fun of way we often think handing out heart blessings serves as a cover-all for the petty things we’re about to observe about our family, our supervisors, our neighbors and friends.
The poem has been on my mind a lot since that sermon, as I reflect on a first semester of grad school filled with the kind of superficial concerns that consume so many of my waking hours.
Though there have certainly been moments of greatness, moments in which I transcended the tiny universe of my own mind, much of the past four months has fit neatly into the academic schema of my last 16 years.
Go to class. Take notes. Scribble down suggested readings. Fail to make the time for suggested readings. Receive paper assignments. Procrastinate on said paper assignments. Succeed in spite of myself.
No amount of last-minute learning can quiet the what-ifs of this self-described perfectionist.
What if I had started my research a month ago? What if I went in to talk with my professors more often? What if I had really felt good about what I turned in, instead of just good enough?
When I made my final decision in April to attend Yale Divinity School, I pictured myself entering a world where I would stop falling victim to Law & Order SVU marathons, movie theater popcorn and the “do I have to do this?” moaning and groaning of my undergraduate years. Where I would be so in love with what I was learning that I would never once complain about reading entire theological treatises in one night and skipping sleep to complete my to-do list.
I thought I could finally reach a level of performance where I unquestionably knew I was doing it right. I thought I would finally have all the answers, or at least that I would know how to ask the right questions, bless my heart.
And if I haven’t already made it abundantly clear, let me be explicit: I was wrong.
Entering these final two weeks of my first semester as a graduate student, I am every bit the academic stress mess that I have been for the past 22 years, paralyzed by fears of coming up short and plagued with a sense that my need to sleep and take breaks for television is somehow a weakness I just haven’t been able to purge.
But, perhaps in one of those elusive moments of transcendence, I realized that it can get better. And that it will get better if I just, for once and for all, let go of those April preconceptions that somehow YDS wanted me for my ability to be the perfect student. That they wanted me to be objectively brilliant in all moments, on all days.
Because perfection isn’t what a graduate school, even an Ivy League graduate school, wants from its students…if it’s a good one. You see, the good ones, the one who really want to teach you something, want you to bring your whole self to the table. They want you to learn how to succeed while being true to the messy parts of you.
Yale didn’t invite me to be a student here because it had been tricked into thinking I had put months of care and attention into my personal statement as any truly ‘perfect’ student might do; it invited me here because I have something to offer that’s an asset to this community. And that something is visible in moments where I’m not pretending to be some kind of robotically amazing student that I’m not.
So, though these next two weeks stand to stress me in ways I have never been stressed before, I know it will get better. Because it never had to get bad in the first place.
Bless my crummy little heart for much all of the bumps in the road that were self-manufactured.