A Wave of Fear, an Ocean of Opportunity
Whether it's taking the lead on a project and committing to bring an audience to an event, or firing away on a job application for a position you see as "out of reach", sometimes life requires us to take leaps of faith. How quickly would you be willing to jump, however, when that leap is daring to take you halfway around the world? We all aspire to tremendous, albeit relative, heights. Even for someone who has their heart set on a top office in a small firm, the climb can seem just as staggering as a race for the Presidency of a nation. No matter the desire, there will always be reasons cropping up in our minds to deter us from pushing further. As our guest this week illustrates, however, sometimes there's an even greater prize awaiting us on the other side of that harrowing leap.
I am intensely afraid of the ocean. It was a combination of Jaws and Titanic that really did me in, but even prior to seeing those movies I considered the ocean a liquid black hole of fear and despair. And for someone whose childhood dream was to discover Atlantis, this fear posed a fundamental challenge. But besides this one bump (fine, sinkhole) in the road, I’ve known what I want to do with my life since I was eight. It was a fateful spring/summer/autumn/winter day (give me a break, it was almost twenty years ago) in my young life and a trip to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts with my dad would forever change the way I see the world. I entered the Greek and Roman galleries and came face-to-face with a three-foot, Roman-era bronze statue of Hercules (Greek, Herakles). It’s a nude statue of him, still on display today, wearing the skin of the Nemean lion over one shoulder, holding his (absent) club in his outstretched left hand. For an impressionable eight-year-old girl, I’m sure you can imagine what struck me as most fascinating: the lion skin, obviously. Just kidding, it was definitely the nudity. But once I got over my initial shock, and after I had made sure my dad was nowhere in sight, I shuffled closer to the statue and, wide-eyed, examined him. Sure, I had seen Disney’s 2007 Hercules (including the “Disney on Ice” performance, I don’t mess around when it comes to Disney), so I was familiar with the Herakles myths. However, seeing his persona face-to-face in a tangible context suddenly made his story feel real…as real as a myth about a divine hero with god-like strength overcoming twelve seemingly impossible monster-laden labors all to expiate the slaying of his own family, a rage-induced atrocity caused by one seriously oversensitive goddess step-mother, could feel...
I saw this statue and I wanted to know everything about it and the figure it portrayed. Where did it come from? Who made it? Who would have seen the statue, and why was this figure important? Who are the other famous Greek heroes? The heroines? What other myths are there from Herakles’s world? Why was Hera such a Debbie-downer? I left the museum that day and made it my mission to answer these questions. And upon accepting that I suffer from Thalassophobia, I began engaging with the vibrant world of Classics through non-aquatic venues.
For those who aren’t familiar with the term, “Classics” refers broadly to the study of ancient Greek and Roman civilization. There are numerous and varied divisions, such as literature, languages, philosophy, history, religion, material culture, and art and archaeology; these divisions have their own subcategories, etc. I am most interested in Greek religion and gender in the Bronze Age through the early Hellenistic era, with an emphasis on the Middle Archaic to Late Classical period (c. 650 BCE-323 BCE). My research, past and present, examines gender identity in relation to sexuality, mythology, and ritual practices. I also dabble in Near Eastern and biblical studies, again focusing on the relationship between gender constructs and ritual. I’m currently a second-year PhD student; I research the development of Aphrodite’s iconography and how it relates to Greek perceptions of gendered sexuality. I am a student at the University of St. Andrews. Yes, the “home of golf”; no, I don’t play, unless you count mini-golf. Yes, where William met Kate; no, I haven’t met any princes. I’m already a King, why would I need a prince? (Get it? Because my last name is King…)
The road to St. Andrews wasn’t paved in gold but rather layers of self-doubt. This self-doubt was driven by several fears besides animatronic sharks and an “unsinkable” ship. First up is the fear of uncertain funding. The day I was old enough to apply I was job-hunting, and since then I’ve worked part-time throughout my school career, at times two jobs, and at one point three. Like many US college students, my undergraduate degree and my master’s degree were funded by student loans. Agreeing to those Terms & Conditions feels like signing a life (death?) sentence willingly, but for many students it’s an unavoidable and necessary evil in order to pursue higher education. Pursuing my dream of becoming a Classics university professor was never going to be cheap and I knew that. And if I wanted to achieve that dream, my educational background would need to be noteworthy. The loans enabled me to attend a reputable private college outside of Boston, Stonehill College, to take courses at Brown University two separate summers, to attend Oxford University for study abroad, and to enroll in a master’s program at the University of Edinburgh. Now I’m self-funding at the University of St. Andrews. It’s daunting to be in this position, when the fear of insufficient funding persistently creeps over your shoulder to remind you of everything you could lose if you don’t come up with the right amount of money, especially when the last thing you want to do is take out more loans.
Yet I can’t regret the decisions I made with regards to my education because of the monthly bills I will be paying for the next sixty some-odd years (just kidding, I only expect to be paying off loans for the next…forty or fifty years). Combating this fear is the knowledge that I have options and I have resources: advisors at the university, funding bodies, stable employment and additional employment opportunities, repayment plans and loan refinancing. What matters most when facing financial fears is arming yourself with money…wait, I’m sorry, with knowledge. For many of us, funding is a primary concern for nearly all of our endeavors, but bemoaning the reality of student debt doesn’t decrease the bills. Educating yourself on your financial help options does.
Second is the fear of not measuring up to my peers, of comparing myself to fellow PhD students and finding myself lacking. When pursuing a degree program, or starting a new job, or beginning a new project, etc., a cloud of constant self-doubt follows you wherever you go and hovers over whatever you’re doing. As a PhD student, I know I am not alone in thinking that my peers are always miles ahead of me: that student knows exactly what she’s arguing, this one already has three chapters written and edited, and that other student already has an article published. It’s nearly impossible not to compare yourself to your peers, in whatever context, and find yourself lacking. But all it takes is for one of those peers to admit to feeling completely out of his/her depth to make you realize that you’re not supposed to have all the answers right away, and that we are all clinging to the hope of future success like a Kardashian to Botox. And there is such comfort in that realization. Misery loves company, right?
Following this is the fear of failure, with which I imagine many can empathize. My confidence constantly wavers: too often I wonder if everything I’ve worked so hard to achieve will be invalidated by one setback. If I don’t successfully complete this PhD, will everything I accomplished previously have been for naught? But I find that this very fear is what drives me to succeed. If I’m not afraid of what could happen, then I’m not working hard enough. If I slip into a false sense of security, I won’t be prepared for obstacles. Admitting to the fear of failure doesn’t mean you’ve failed already, it means that you know what’s at stake, and that you’re fighting, in whatever capacity, to prevent failure from happening. Even if you do encounter setbacks, and I assure you I have on my road to the PhD, the only real failure is giving up. Wallow in self-pity for as long as you need to, don’t deny yourself that emotional catharsis; the important thing is that you pick yourself up and learn from the experience so that you can keep going. After all, we mustn’t forget the wise words of a great man: “From the ashes of disaster, grow the roses of success.” –Grandpa Potts, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. You’re welcome.
Lastly is the fear of moving overseas: away from family and friends, from the comfort of home, from the stability of the familiar. Growing up, I was always very much a homebody. Prior to applying to undergraduate programs, I would have laughed if you’d suggested that someday I’d be living in the UK. Fast forward a couple of years, and I studied abroad at Oxford University in 2011, lived in Edinburgh for a year for my master’s degree (2013/14), then moved back to Edinburgh for my PhD in 2015 and I’ll be here for at least the next two or three years. I am very close with my family; we express our love through brutally sarcastic verbal abuse and we wouldn’t have it any other way, we support each other through thick and thin, and we celebrate one another’s achievements. I also have very close friends with whom I’ve grown up, who remained my friends, willingly, even throughout my decade-long awkward phase. My friends, my parents, and my two sisters are unbelievably supportive of my pursuing a PhD at St. Andrews, but moving overseas again was a difficult decision.
When you first start planning a big move, all you can focus on is the excitement of change, the potential for new experiences. But then you’re at the airport, and it’s time for you to go through security, and you turn to your family and/or friends to say goodbye, and everything you’re leaving behind hits you like a brick wall: the birthday celebrations, the holiday gatherings, the banter across the dinner table, the Sunday car rides around town, the Disney movie marathons. You’re walking away from all of that to experience a world of unknowns. Of course you go home for visits, and everything resumes as normal, but always with the sad knowledge that this respite at home is temporary
I am fortunate to have made wonderful friends in Edinburgh, and with them I have made incredible memories: from exploring Scottish castles to visiting Athens for the first time, from museum hopping in London to excavating in Campania, Italy. And the academic experiences have been just as vibrant; I’ve found a new sense of confidence in myself as a researcher in pursuing my passion for Classics at St. Andrews. But most importantly, I think facing this fear of being away from home has helped me come into my own as an independent young woman. I miss my family and friends back home, but I know I have their support. I also know that being in Edinburgh makes me happy. Whatever your fear, some days will be harder than others, but that’s when you have to remember, as the supremely talented performer contends, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” –Kelly Clarkson. Again, you’re welcome. (For all you quote purists out there: “What does not kill me makes me stronger.” –Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols)
I long ago accepted that I wouldn’t be finding Atlantis any time soon thanks to a fake shark and an iceberg, but that won’t stop me from pursuing my passion. And I hope that regardless of whatever your fears are, you follow your passion as well.
This post has been edited for grammar. All other content remains the original thoughts & expressions of the author.