May 27, 2020

Are you me?

By Josiane Joseph

As an elementary student, I was recruited to recite the morning announcements (and otherwise had many opportunities for public speaking). Each day I would arrive early to the little studio adjacent to the library where my colleagues and I would squabble for the primary announcer position. It was always exciting to tell thousands of students and faculty the lunch menu and details about major school events. When I was at home sometimes my sister would grill me about a world she could only imagine: “did you do the announcements today?” If my response was affirmative she might follow-up with “How was it? Were you nervous?” At my nonchalantly positive reviews about the simplicity of the task she once exclaimed: “I don’t understand how you can do that! Don’t you know that thousands of people are watching?” Decades later I am still taken aback by her seemingly harmless curiosity.

At the guileless age of eight when I was nominated for the position, I had no concept of nervousness in the realm of public speaking. I only knew the facts. People more mature than me had observed my skills in reciting to the masses and encouraged me to develop those skills while serving the needs of my institution. Why should I be wary of doing what everyone, including myself, knew that I am fully capable of doing? What people are actually asking with the “Are you nervous?” question is “Are you like me in this instance?” The answer to that question for many situations is no. No two people are exactly alike—not not even identical conjoined twins and definitely not siblings with years in age difference. Proof of this is that announcements were not for my sister—which she made clear—but for me the role was perfect.

Now in graduate school, where the stakes are much higher, I am experiencing similar interrogations almost at every turn. “Are you lonely?” might be a question from someone who knows I am far from home. They say this without knowing what joys I can only appreciate as someone who lives independently. I have found new hobbies that the familiarity of my people in Florida kept me from enjoying. (For example, not one Florida friend so far has consented to go hiking.) Additionally, I designated time to read more than twenty books in 2019 because I was left “alone”. Then I wandered through a park with an acquaintance extoling the merits of Michele Obama’s Becoming. “Alone” and apart from my family is where I have discovered new communities and, most valuably, myself. It is with gratitude that I reflect on the opportunity I have to achieve my career goals apart from my home.

Unfortunately, it is easy to find examples where people challenge my contentment at school. If someone learns that a major career defining milestone, for example a qualifying exam, is looming I might get any number of responses. “Are you nervous?” seems to be an ancient query passed down to every generation, yet I am still at a loss for a response. Am I, a person that has persevered as a student for more than twenty years, still nervous about doing student activities? For some of my peers the answer to this question might be yes. But I can tell you from extensive interactions with them that those individuals have different life experiences than mine. Most of them are not African American nor a first generation professional trainee and daughter to immigrants. They are sheltered from the shock of seeing themselves in people who are gunned down or staving off derisive comments about affirmative action. They have limited notions of the challenges of my day-to-day just as I am kept from the trails of theirs. A beautiful facet of life is that even similar scenarios lead to diverse outcomes depending on cognitive processing; however, what is not beautiful is that even if someone watches me coasting on a road of tranquility they feel free to crash into my world in a vehicle loaded with discontent.

All of this was written primarily to express this: if you see someone at peace, let her be. Allow people to exist without projecting your negative emotions onto them. I rarely desire to pacify the unwarranted sympathy and emotions of others. Additionally, negative questions are not conducive to a joyful life and generally consume our most valuable resource: time. I understand it is important to let people know that they are not alone in a situation and for some, perhaps, verbalizing their potential feelings might be comforting. But, at least for me, constantly warding off negative and inaccurate ideas about me when I am already investing great energy into my studies is exhausting (and isolating).

When we unload our anxiety, shame, regret, etc. on others under the guise of being helpful we might instead be teaching them to bear our issues. That is unjust because the recipient may not have the emotional bandwidth to spare. Instead of asking “Are you nervous?” or “Are you scared?” we can ally with our colleagues by assessing the situation before providing a response. A start might be, “I know you have this major obligation coming up. How are you feeling?” This question leaves space for positive emotions as opposed to a question about anxiety which crowds out the hope inherent to tackling major career milestones. Besides, humans frequently have positive and negative emotions about one event; therefore broader questions are more appropriate. So especially if you want to help, leave the floor open for your companion to curate the tone of the conversation.

Another approach is to ask: “How can I help?” From my experiences asking and hearing this question, people rarely take the offer but it is reassuring to know that someone cares enough to ask. Such a question boosts my positives feelings immeasurably. Who wouldn’t want evidence that someone sees their efforts and wants only to support them? Especially in this chapter where isolation is forced upon us, we should all do our part to respond AFTER assessing an individual’s status.

Particularly in current times, I am impressed by the diverse needs of those around me. In example, I once believed that mental health issues were rare, yet I frequently find that some scenarios that bring me joy actually cause others to fall into depression. And I have only come to know this after learning to be myself and allowing others to be authentic without casting predictions on how they should feel. We should all be careful to avoid bludgeoning people with our biased opinions and instead allow and support them to flourish as themselves.

Josiane Joseph is a Haitian-American M.D.-Ph.D. student at Mayo Clinic. She was born in Miami, Florida and earned her B.S. at the University of Florida. During her free time she enjoys movies, vlogging, attending church, and learning about what makes other individuals unique. Josiane values discussions of meaningful issues and looks forward to sharing diverse views with others.

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