Destiny and desolation

This is the story of how I lost my destiny and found a world without destinies. It’s a story of two viewpoints – the human and the institutional. It’s a story of desire, longing, loss and of new beginnings. It’s a story that perhaps is a little uplifting, but also, on the whole, fairly depressing. And that shall suffice by way of preamble.1The title, as well as this sentence, is of course an act of unbridled linguistic thievery committed against one of my favourite papers in moral philosophy by Rae Langton, but maybe the reader will accept a more charitable construction of homage.

Destiny

There are, to the best of my understanding, two ways of dealing with present adversity. One is to fight it in the here and now, and rage against it with all one’s might, and to hell with the consequences. Or, one might instead opt for a slower course, and bide one’s time. The present may be dark, one might say, but there will be a future that will no doubt vindicate oneself. Sometimes, facing overwhelming odds, where there is no chance of success of a fight in the present, biding one’s time might indeed be the only thing one can do.

Inevitably, it becomes an existential necessity to set one’s sights on a target, as much in the stars as one’s adversity-laden present is a gutter. That, that would be the final justification, the thing to set all things right, the just reward for not giving up hope and the well-earned prize of a steadfast hand.

Some people would call that pursuit an ‘ambition’. That, dear reader, is pure steaming bullshit coming from people who do not understand the depth of the emotion herein described. It’s not an ambition. It’s love. It’s infatuation. It’s a passionate desire, an intoxicating mixture of equal part love and madness, that does not admit to alternatives or silver medals. You, you’ve just got to have it.

And to a select few, that thing becomes a part of their identity, dwarfing much that others care about. From time to time, society encounters individuals thus obsessed (or perhaps possessed would be a more apt term?), and sees them at best as eccentrics and at worst as single-minded obsessives devoid of fundamental human equanimity, who have abstracted their human worth onto the single pinpoint pinnacle of reaching their goal, pouring everything into that goal in ways that might, to the so-called ‘sane’, seem strange to the point of insanity (indeed, a good number of history’s asylums were, and remain, filled with people of this mindset).

I’m not here to convince you that people who go through this emotion are sane. That would be, of course, partly false witness. And partly, it would be witnessing in my own case.

Devotion

An ambition is something you follow (or not, depending on how you’re feeling at the time). A Destiny is more like a plant, something one nourishes, and when one is out of water, it is the way of things that one would willingly shed one’s own blood to sustain that frail little flower, and to hell with one’s own survival. And with every day, it grows into a sustaining force of its own, a symbiotic entity of sorts, in need to be nourished much as it also nourishes and protects.

And sometimes, its very existence can help one survive the unsurvivable.

I will dispense with sordid details of past atrocities. All that needs to be said is, there were plenty. All that needs to be understood is that for a long, long time, the sole thing that kept me alive, through the dark night of the decade from age 8 to 18, was my destiny. I know this because I know those who went through the same night, and few made it out sane, never mind at all. Much of the terror of that night was compounded by a bitter lack of companionship, understanding and respect. And so, my destiny would be the place where I would find all three.

I would be a Fellow of All Souls.

Now, in case you have no idea what I’m talking about, here’s the Cliffsnotes version. Every year, All Souls College, the most elite college of Oxford and Cambridge and admitting only graduate students, elects one, sometimes two Prize Fellows (now called Fellows by Election). You can only try in the first few years after your BA, and generally, you need a top 1st – a top of the tops degree in your subject – to try. You sit a written examination, which is as insane as it is fun: two general papers and two subject papers. Many sit. Few, at most five, are chosen to a viva, an oral examination of sorts where your soul – and mind – is weighed by all current Fellows, many distinguished in their field to the point of being household names. Two at most are chosen.

To be a Prize Fellow is the greatest acknowledgement a young academic can hope for. I could wax lyrical about it, but frankly, there’s no point. It doesn’t matter what it was. It matters what it was to me.

To me, it was acknowledgement that I was worthy – the only thing I craved all my life. A simple, plain recognition that I was worthy of respect, of attention, of fostering and perhaps even of love. And a damning verdict on a world that repaid these needs of mine with rejection and abuse.

And so, when I took my pen to paper on a Saturday morning, the air thick with the sausage and hash browns of a whole university town at brunch, I wrote with the force and fervour of every ounce and grain of pain amassed over fifteen years, every insult and atrocity taken with a straight face and saved for this moment, every single one of those blinding flashes of grief and humiliation that are one’s lot – fifteen years of pent-up rage and anger and hate and that ultimate of human fundamental forces: the desire to be understood, loved and respected. I’m surprised the paper did not catch fire.

And a few days later, I got an e-mail. I made it into the viva. I was within the Final Five. I could see it, just inches away. Here was my prize, and by All Souls’ Day, a few days after the viva, it would be mine.

I came in from the river early, and ran for my room at a breakneck pace on the day of election. It was, we of the final five knew, that afternoon that the results would be communicated to us by the Warden (the head of the College).

And just as sure, the phone rang a few minutes after I entered my room. I picked up the receiver. As soon as I heard the Warden’s tone, I knew what the message was going to be. I was passed over. For whatever reason, and reasons are not really given in this stupid game, I’ve been found wanting.

I don’t care much for seven years’ free food and board. But that day, I lost my destiny.

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Losing your destiny is like permanently missing a body part. It’s not so much painful as it is an acute awareness of the fact that there ought to be something there, and it isn’t. The edges of the wound, from which a part of one’s soul was torn with the violence of a stellar explosion, are sore. They heal slowly. Five years on, they still are incredibly sore.

I don’t know to this day how I survived that day, and the following weeks. I fielded calls of sympathy and e-mails telling me how incredibly proud the college was of having me in the viva… well meant, but I frankly couldn’t have cared less. After two and a half decades of working through pain and fatigue and a non-specific sickness of the previous few years that would soon make its grand entrance; after all-nighters heaped upon all-nighters, after exceeding every single expectation, after sacrificing more than many will ever know, – and perhaps I ought to be ashamed of writing this, but I am not – I hung my head and wept for an hour.

I would never be the same.

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Destinies are not like houses. You cannot build yourself a new one if the old one crumbles. You cannot buy a new one. They are crafted in fiery furnaces, and it’s exceptional enough to have one in a lifetime. You certainly don’t get a second one.

What’s left is to pick up the pieces and carry on. That’s indeed what I did. I made a moderate success of my BCL, but it was clear after this rejection that there was no way I could with any self-respect get a doctoral place in Oxford. That’s the cost of shooting your arrow to the sky: if you’re chastened, there’s a good chance you’ll be chastened with that arrow through your knee.

It’s been 1,825 days since the worst injustice of my entire life – worse than any other – the thing that could’ve made everything good. Or so I thought, anyway. I never said there was a trace of sanity in this. If you think I’m entitled, you are probably right – but then, that word also means ‘deserving of receiving something’. And were you not chastising me for just that?

Or, if you think I was insane to put so much into an abstract, not even objectively measurable process: once again, I did not give warranties of sanity.

A few months later, I would stop being able to eat, violently throwing up every bite of food. I carried on doing 20-hour days in utter physical agony. I would eventually come down with a disease so rare, it was the fifth haematologist to pick it up. Things looked pretty darn grim. Very little is known about HLH, but it was pretty well known that it does one thing pretty well: it kills most patients. 78%, according to some statistics. That, by the way, is with treatment. I did not exactly care a lot, but probably decided to do chemotherapy because it was the right thing to do, plus, I am constitutionally intolerant of not doing something about a problem.

In what struck me as utterly bizarre, I lived.

A lot of pieces have fallen into place since then. Towards the end of my chemotherapy, I met the girl who became my loving, devoted wife. If I can write about this experience with pain only, but no anger and resentment, that’s all due to her. I did not really need someone to explain to me how silly the whole thing was, but that does not make it any less real. My heart will never be whole, and I have no more choice in that than I have in having greenish-blue eyes. But whether I would let this poison the good in it or not, that was my choice. I doubt I would have recognised it without her.

She is everything to me. I don’t know if she is my destiny, and I don’t care. Destiny can kiss my ass.

Since then, I have made my own destiny. I married the girl I loved, and now, I can hear her soft breathing as she sleeps next to me, occasionally exuding a giggle from what must be a particularly amusing dream. We have a kitten, and she’s a joy, even if she decides to poop where she’s not supposed to. I’ve found my place in a new career in a new industry that I love, and perhaps I’m better off now. On more cogent days, I even realise I came closer to my dream than virtually everyone save the 1-2 people a year, and that in and of itself is an honour. Some put it on their CV, proudly. I’m not there yet.

I’ve had plenty of recognition, too, since, and I’ve found many like-minded people. And perhaps part of growth is understanding that dreams are just that. We have them and they get us through the night. But we can’t spend our days in dreams. Not unless we aim to have some Thorazine with our dinner, too.

I’m probably never going to have a destiny again, and most of the time, that’s fine with me. “Fine”, like an old injury is fine – painless most days, but makes itself felt every once in a while when moving funny or when the weather turns damp.

References   [ + ]

1. The title, as well as this sentence, is of course an act of unbridled linguistic thievery committed against one of my favourite papers in moral philosophy by Rae Langton, but maybe the reader will accept a more charitable construction of homage.

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