I Got the (Final Year) Blues

 I am not at all in a humor for writing; I must write on till I am — Jane Austen

Created using Wordle

Created using Wordle

Recently I began the final year of my undergraduate degree. It should be an exciting time: graduation is within sight and the modules are challenging and intellectually stimulating. Now that the groundwork has been laid during the first two years of study, final year offers an opportunity to deepen into my subject. I have posted before about my love of linguistics and fascination with language, but during the past week or so I have questioned what it’s all for: what is the point, for instance, of analyzing the distribution of phonological variable X, correlated with age, sex or social class in a geographic locality?

I felt that acutely yesterday, when I sat down in the morning to plan a project which requires me to choose my own area of research, collect data for it, quantitatively analyze the data and write a 3000 word paper about it (the most advanced and demanding project I have done so far). I started out with good intentions but spent nearly all day wrestling with it without anything to show for my time. By the end of the day, I was feeling daunted, despondent and disheartened, questioning myself about whether aspiring to an academic career is really what I am cut out for. Today, after a more productive morning, I do feel slightly more positive and I’m not ready to give up on my chosen field yet!

I don’t know why I am currently walking through this mire of self-doubt and second-guessing my abilities, but I suppose I have to take heart that everyone has bad days (or bad weeks, in my case!) and trust that it will not last. Even though “I am not at all in a humor for writing [and researching], I must write on till I am” and turn these problems into challenges to be overcome.

What Not To Say To People Who Are Worrying

I finally succumbed to the hype and read The Fault in Our Stars recently. Everywhere I go, I see piles of copies of it in book stores, posters advertising the movie and people enthusing about it on social media, so I thought I would try it and see what all the fuss is about. The latest craze in YA fiction, The Fault in Our Stars fits into a genre which is being called “sick lit”. First we had sparkly vampires (e.g. Twilight), then we had dystopian worlds (e.g. The Hunger Games and others) and now, “sick lit”, as YA books with themes of terminal illness are flying off the shelves.

The Fault in Our Stars (image courtesy of Goodreads)

The title of The Fault in Our Stars is derived from a line in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, for we are underlings”. It is a majestic title and the pages that follow are a sensitively written portrayal of a teenage girl, Hazel, who is suffering from terminal cancer. A medical breakthrough drug bought her a few more years, during which she falls in love with a boy, Augustus Waters, who has started coming to the Cancer Kid Support Group that Hazel attends.

Although the characters are vividly portrayed and Green’s writing made me feel sympathetic for Hazel and Augustus, I felt rather underwhelmed after I turned the last page. I read it quickly but do not feel compelled to pick up another of Green’s books. His writing, and The Fault in Our Stars in particular, has legions of fans. Am I missing something? Maybe I should try it again.

There was, however, one particular aspect of this book that I found thought-provoking: the way people use metaphors and analogies to describe serious illnesses, such as describing cancer as a battle or as a journey. To me, the phrase “cancer journey” sounds like trying to put a positive spin on it, when sometimes there isn’t one. Yet society constantly uses metaphors for things that we find difficult to talk about, such as illness and death.

It’s part of our incessant need to be positive, to reassure ourselves.  I have met similar situations myself, when well-meaning people say “I’m sure everything’s going to be fine”. But I know what it feels like for everything to not be fine. Right now, in fact, I’m feeling uncertain and fearful about the future because I am worried about certain things going on in my life at the moment, notably my mother’s need for further medical treatment soon. She was very ill less than two years ago and needs more treatment, otherwise she will become ill again. I am grateful for every day that she is with me but I worry about her a lot.

From my point of view, the least helpful thing to say to people who are worrying is “everything is going to be okay”. Instead of trying to quell someone’s worry with a well-intentioned but unhelpful platitude, just listen.

“Compassionate listening brings about healing” — Thich Nhat Hanh