Editor’s Note: Portraits of Resilience is a photography and narrative series by Prof. Daniel Jackson. Each installment consists of a portrait and a story, told in the subject’s own words, of how they found resilience and meaning in their life.
The first time I got a B in my life, I broke out in tears. That was in Mrs. Griffin’s fourth grade reading class, and I never got a B again until I came to MIT. She hoped a B+ would motivate me, but instead it crushed me and was a traumatic experience I remember to this day. I was in the gifted program. I cared so much about grades, I was pulling all-nighters in elementary school.
It wasn’t coming from my family. They rejoiced that night I came home and cried about my grades, and lovingly joked, “Finally! Proof you’re human!” They even baked me a cake. My family is one-in-a-million. My dad showed us the value of hard work, commuting three hours a day so we could grow up in the picturesque Pocono Mountains. You couldn’t find a more loving and caring mother. In her eyes, my three brothers and I could do no wrong.
In high school, I really cared about grades, and when I got good grades it was super rewarding. In college it was about the grades but others things too. I won 21 scholarships in four years, studied abroad in Spain, and was a two-time national medalist in Taekwondo. For me, these were memes I collected — like the time I did 24 drinks one night in my fraternity.
Motivation used to be in infinite supply for me. Then, suddenly, I had a very finite amount of it, and it was hard to get stuff done. The things that used to bring me pleasure didn’t bring me pleasure anymore. Often, the most routine tasks, like finishing a pset, became paralyzingly overwhelming. At other times, I felt desensitized to stress, like the main character from Office Space who is permanently stuck in a hypnotic state. I felt numb to things that actually kind of mattered, like graduating or finding a job. On top of this, I felt guilty, too: that I was disappointing my parents, not living up to my MIT education, and even letting down my younger self.
I was taking 21M.013, “The Supernatural in Music, Literature, and Culture,” and we read the story of Faust. The devil tried tempting him with everything — fame, fortune, money, power, intellect — but he was never actually happy. It made me realize that all the things I’d valued ultimately left me feeling empty inside.
One night in my senior year, it got so bad that I jumped off a bridge. Growing up, I had done some cliff jumping, and I was pretty sure it was safe. I had scoped it out the summer before with a friend, and we went down in the water as deep as we could to check it was clear.
I had been thinking about jumping off for a long time. When I did it, it was spur-of-the-moment. I was kind of apathetic, and I just wanted to feel something. Because it was a really warm day in the spring, I didn’t think about the temperature of the water. Fortunately, I’m a strong swimmer. Otherwise, I’d have died of hypothermia. By the time I got to the shore, I was a mess. I had numb limbs, slurred speech, tunnel vision, and had stopped shivering, which is a very bad sign. In retrospect, it wasn’t a very smart thing to do, and it didn’t help anyway.
I graduated MIT in 2010, in mechanical engineering. At that point I was pretty burnt out, but my momentum from good grades and other memes carried me across the finish line.
One of my friends offered me a job at Booz Allen Hamilton. I wasn’t super happy there, so I took the first opportunity I had to leave. I went to work with one of my old professors, who was starting a university in Russia. I wasn’t happy there either, and I was like, “Maybe I’d like to do research.” So I came back to MIT and joined a research group, but that wasn’t my thing either. I took a year off and worked for some startups — all these world-class opportunities that some people would probably kill for. But I still wasn’t happy, and that’s when I realized it wasn’t the external things.
So I took a year off, dropped all my responsibilities, and I started practicing yoga. I did a yoga teacher-training program, and I became really interested in Buddhist philosophy. I started attending the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center.
I was raised Catholic, and one of the things you hear is, “You’re created in God’s image.” There are many different ways of interpreting it, but one way I heard at a Bible study group was that it’s like a glove with a God-shaped void inside. I feel that void, but I’m not sure it’s God that fills it.
One of my Christian friends at yoga suggested reading the Bible but replacing every instance of God and Jesus with the word love. So what fills the void is being part of loving and supportive relationships. You see that the people who are into their faith are the ones who are part of a community. As an atheist, which a lot of MIT is, it’s really easy to be like, “God doesn’t even exist, how could God fill the emptiness?” They don’t see that to these people God is a loving and supportive relationship, most especially with themselves, and also with others.
Even if you have that insight, you can’t just snap your fingers and make it happen. Since coming back, I’ve sought a community at MIT with those loving and supportive relationships. I never found it here, but I found it through meditation, through yoga, and other friends outside of MIT.
In my judgment, a lot of people at MIT are lacking this fundamental human need of connection, of fellowship, of companionship, but they’re completely unaware of it. The easiest way to be unaware of something is to distract yourself. MIT is a built-in distraction.
MIT is like this giant monster. Every single individual you interact with is helping you to fight it: all of your peers, all your professors, even the administration. It’s not just MIT. MIT epitomizes American values. MIT is meritocracy, which is institutionalized success and achievement. If you question that, and wonder if these things are vices, very few people would agree.
Now I’m back in the Mechanical Engineering department in a medical device lab. My passion and interest lies in this space. I plan on finishing my thesis this semester for my master’s and continuing on for a PhD.
I had a conversation with a friend last night. He used this term, which I really liked. He said, “We’re in a small group of engineers whose hearts have softened.” He’s going through the same struggles I am.
Tylor Hess is a graduate student in the Department of Mechanical Engineering.
This project is supported by the Undergraduate Association’s Committee on Student Support and Wellness, chaired by Tamar Weseley ’17 and Alice Zielinski ’16. To participate in the project, or to learn more, contact ResilienceProject@mit.edu.
There are many ways to find help. Members of the MIT community can access support resources at together.mit.edu. To access support through MIT Medical’s Mental Health & Counseling Service, please call (617) 253-2916 or visit medical.mit.edu.
Image and text copyright Daniel Jackson, 2016.