It Starts and Ends with You
“Eventually, I came to the realization that I was the problem. It wasn’t Nike or the pressure to be number one or being an emblem of hope for my family, or any of that. It wasn’t losing Tunde. These were all contributing factors, but ultimately it was on me. It was all this negative energy I’d allowed to build up around me, that’s what was dragging me down.”
— Serena Williams, On The Line
Following the death of her sister Yetunde in late 2003, Serena Williams found herself struggling personally with motivation. This indifference ran over into her professional life, and the consequence was poor performance. Like many of us, Serena looked outside herself to find fault. She began to feel that her new contract with Nike, even when she was injured, created additional pressure to meet lofty standards that she herself had set. She began to view herself as “an emblem of hope” for her family, believing that her own professional successes would perhaps create a sense of emotional ease as they grieved together. Consequently, she toiled away at her professional life, sodden with grief, frustration, disappointment, and sometimes anger. In time, she realized that the external pressures she had blamed for her disintegration were only “contributing factors” to her coming apart. Ultimately, she was the epoxy, and it was her approach to life that needed mending, not life itself. Serena finally understood that everything she needed to be healthier was always within, available when she was prepared to rebuild.
Sometimes events in life appear fated to destroy us. In response, we seek answers in others, in work, in social projects, in hobbies, in substances. We yearn for “normalcy,” a return to life as it felt before there were troubles. But what if we accepted that suffering starts and ends with us?
In the fall of 1999, I experienced the grey skies of unemployment for the first time. The previous year I had been a paid researcher living in Chile. When the grant for my research was fully exhausted, given that I had not found work otherwise in the capital city Santiago, I returned to the United States. I spent two weeks home with my family. I had not seen my younger brothers for a year, and the time was evident in their new builds and matured faces. While I was away, my maternal grandfather died due to complications of Lou Gehrig’s, and my mother still looked wounded by his death. My father, a Baptist minister pastoring two congregations while working full-time as shop teacher at the local middle school, had further filled out his frame with delicious homemade Southern food, prepared for him by members of the congregation, his own mother, and my mother. Behind a loving smile, I hid disappointment in having had to return to the States. It was not that I was disinterested in the family time; it was that I had expected life to give me a job in Chile, so that I could stay.
I ate very well over those two weeks home, and even enjoyed the short time with my beautiful family. But, no amount of comfort food, fun nights of laughter, or love could keep me in a town with which I had not reconciled my grievances –indignities dating back to my adolescent years. I left for Chicago at exactly fourteen days. A meaningless timeline I established so that I knew that I was, in fact, going back into the world to create happiness for myself. I could not allow staying in Deep South Alabama to add more wounds to those already afflicted on me when I felt hopeless and forced to leave Chile. I returned to Chicago, where I had lived gloriously for four years during college.
In Chicago, I lived with a close friend and her mother, who owned a modest home on The North Shore. They assured me that I would have all the time I needed to find good employment, work befitting their belief in my abilities and stature. I was exceedingly grateful, but also felt pressure to prove I was everything they believed. In those times, one found employment through the classifieds in newspapers, referrals from friends or former employers, connections through in-person networking, job placement agencies, or sheer chance! I explored and exhausted each of these possibilities, disfavoring job placement agencies on my friends’ collective belief that I could find work otherwise.
At six months unemployed, and having nearly spent all of the last money I had accepted from my parents, I was at my wits end! I had overextended all of my connections, had applied to every job post that included a fax number, and had even had some interviews that went pretty disastrously! What had I missed? I spent an entire Sunday afternoon contemplating this while my friend and her mother attended service at the local Greek parish. I was just too dejected to go with them and answer any more questions from their church friends about the failures of my employment search. As I paced the floor between the bedroom I had been given for my stay and the family computer, I wondered why I had done so much to receive so little from life. Eventually, it occurred to me that I had everything I needed but gratitude. In six months, while I had thanked my friends, I had not been truly grateful that I did not have the same worries that other unemployed people endured. My troubles did not come from the world outside of me, rather the world of expectations within. I then asked, “What else do you need?” The answer was money. I then remembered an ad I had seen from a temp service, and realized with a heavy heart that I had passed it over because it was not permanent employment. For six months the solution to my financial woes had been my own attitude!
On Monday, I contacted the temp agency that had run the ad. They placed me immediately, and with my newfound humility, I began to excel at jobs that, in my youthful arrogance , I thought were beneath me: receptionist, search engine quality control analyst, data entry clerk, secretary to the secretary at a major Chicago hospital, and eventually full-time employment at a medical communications company. Just like that, gainful employment.
Sitting in my newly-rented, unfurnished apartment, on a mattress my friend and her mother gave me so that I would at least have somewhere to lay my head, I remembered something my mother had repeated insistently throughout my childhood, “Your attitude will determine your altitude.” Perhaps I should have spent more than two weeks at home.