Ruminations on Death, Imposter Syndrome, Being a Woman in STEM, and the Afterlife
A little over 2 weeks ago someone very important in my life died.
Harshly. Tragically. Hatefully. Devastatingly.
The specifics of which I am not ready to discuss on this platform, partially for my own privacy and pain, and partially out of respect for that of others. But suffice it to say that it has broken my heart, unearthed a whole world of feelings I had successfully been ignoring for 30 years, triggered a CPTSD flashback that I've been working through for weeks now, and created space for a whole shit ton of self-reflection and exploration. It has certainly been keeping my therapist busy (though, to be fair, I do that well enough on my own).
I was explaining to someone the other day that I do not believe in the concept of an afterlife. While I consider myself "some sort of Agnostic Buddhist Jew," when you boil it all down, I don't think we can really know the answer to the question of Religion, so I just don't worry about it. As much as I love celebrating the High Holidays and embracing my own cobbled-together traditions, religion just doesn't really matter to me too much. This woman to whom I was speaking was very worried about how I felt about where this deceased person had gone, or if I would see them again. How could I possibly have peace with their death if I didn't have the hope of seeing them again? If I didn't think they were in heaven?
Look... not worrying about an afterlife is the best possible way for me to feel about the loss of the life of someone important to me. Because honestly, we have no guarantee of getting to see our loved one post-life, even if you do believe in the afterlife. You never can know 100% for sure where someone's heart lies, what they actually, secretly believe, so you can't have a guarantee of anything. And I don't like that type of uncertainty. The idea that if we both think and feel exactly the same I might see them again doesn't actually bring me any comfort. The idea that there's like a 50/50 chance they're suffering endlessly, or maybe in some sort of paradise doesn't help me rest easier. In fact, it's kinda anxiety-inducing. Fuck all that! (also it makes no goddamn sense to me, but i don't want to get all bogged down in religion in this post - maybe I'll write a "what I think about Evangelical Protestantism/religion in general" post sometime, but this is not that day.)
But when you don't worry about the next life, you are left with just this one. Making the most of it. Living it well and fully. I truly believe, with all my little heart, that our job on this planet is to do good, be kind, help those around you, make things better for everyone (not just your socioeconomic/religious demographic), and generally leave things better than you found it. Basically, love in action. That's all that matters. Everything else is just bonus points. And, I mean, it's not our job to judge how well others are living - we are only responsible for our own lives and choices. But we can still look at others, the way they've lived, and died, and learn from that.
I have spent the last 9 years of my life in school studying natural medicine. I am in this field because I got sick, was suffering, and no one cared or could help me (very simplified). I realized that there are so many people hurting, and I wanted to understand the mechanism, and find a way to help (and help myself, as well, of course). I've written before about my struggle as a legit, proper, rational scientist in the natural health field, so I won't repeat myself. But as I delve deeper and deeper into medicine, applied sciences, more patient-centric work versus research, running my own businesses instead of working for a fancy lab, I have also been struggling with my feelings about myself as a scientist. Feeling like a fraud. I have multiple degrees in scientific fields. I am a researcher, science writer, as well as being an actual healthcare provider. But eh... am I really a scientist? Yes. By most any definition I am. But I am struggling with my identity.
Part of that is my self-employment. I look at a lot of my friends that are academics and/or scientists, who work for prestigious universities, research institutions, and so on (NONE of which are in my field, mind you). And I look at myself, working at businesses that I own, created from nothing but an idea and a lot of hard work, in an office that I rent from a chiropractor, and I think "Fuck... I'm absolutely no one. DEFINITELY not a scientist. I'm fucking... nothing." And yeah, I don't work for a huge, fancy organization. And I feel really shitty about that a lot of the time. But I love my work. I created it myself! And yeah, I have a little office that I have/get to share with a smattering of suitemates, but I also get to spend every single day working to help those who are running out of hope. Does that make me less of a scientist? Less of a #WomanInSTEM?
Speaking of my businesses, I have several. And a cool project. And I am interviewed pretty regularly about them, because they're innovative, one-of-a-kind, affecting change, or just plain awesome. At least once a month I have a client who tells me I/my program(s) have changed their lives (and yes, I always cry bc I'm a total sap). I keep winning awards, apparently? My word-of-mouth referral game is on point because every person walks out of my office feeling at least cared for and heard, if not both physically and mentally improved. I am sought after for lectures, which is still something I struggle to believe because it's pretty damn cool. It's kind of hard to argue that I'm up to some pretty awesome shit. And every time I get a request for an interview, I think "they must be confused... they can't actually want to talk to me..."
Every time I win an award for something or another, I always re-read the letter about 30 times because it's totally impossible that someone who is struggling as much as I am, fails as often as I do, could possibly be award-winning, or even passable at anything. When I'm asked to give a talk, I always think "Jesus Christ... this is the time people are going to figure out that I have no fucking clue what I'm doing." At conferences, gatherings, lectures I always fear that eventually, people will realize that I don't belong, that I don't' know what I'm doing, that I'm not nearly as accomplished as I seem to have conned everyone into thinking I am. And that, my friends, is called "Imposter Syndrome." I know it very well. It haunts me. But knowing it's a thing that even the most accomplished people experience makes me feel a little better, I guess. And as a very special, very accomplished person in my life once said, and I'm paraphrasing here, "Science is not just about success, but about failure." And honestly, that makes me feel so much better, even if I still feel like an imposter most of the time, because it means that even when I fail - and I fail BIG TIME pretty regularly - it's a natural and healthy part of the journey.
But here's the thing (bringing this around full circle), I may feel like a failure, a fraud, a nobody doing nothing a lot of the time. I may question my identity as a scientist, a woman in STEM, a successful business owner, a person on almost a daily basis. But whether I'm succeeding or failing, the one thing even I cannot argue (and I am very good at arguing) is that no matter what I'm up to, I am pouring everything I have and then some into trying to care for others, make the world better, share love, relieve pain, cultivate beauty, advocate for those whose voices aren't as easily heard, speak honestly and generally be kind (and still sweary, because duality!). I fail at that a lot. I suck at that A LOT. But I keep trying. Keep doing my exhausted and pained best. And in the end, in this life we have here, that's all we've got. Doing our best not to be dicks and to leave things better than we found them. Even when we fail miserably. Even when we are burned out. Even when life is depressing, or exhausting, or we don't feel like it. Even when it's inconvenient or uncomfortable. Kindness is key.
Failure happens. Successes happen. Anxiety happens. Confidence happens. Awards and demerits happen. Love and loss happen. Death happens. When you least expect it, and when you aren't looking. And it takes the air from your lungs every goddamn time. It never doesn't hurt like a motherfucker. And, I don't know, I think that as short and complex and unpredictable as life is, instead of worrying about lives after this one, we could have our hands full eternally just trying to handle this one life. So, I don't know... do what you want. For me, I want to live in a way that when I am gone, I've left a flower-trail of kindness behind me. That my loved ones and strangers alike have a better, more inclusive, more compassionate world to live in. What happens to me after I die doesn't matter half as much as how I live. I feel like that might be a universal truth type thing. I suspect it's also one of those "hard pills to swallow" things as well. But life ain't always easy and comfortable. If it were, I would have had no cause to have written this post, eh?
(hey loves, I respect and love you regardless of what you believe. But please don't @ me with your religious/spiritual ideas about heaven, hell, death, and g-d. I know you mean well, but I neither want nor need it. Thanks babe, you da best)