I’ll give you a hint: perseverance.

I never knew how tempting it was to give up, until I worked really hard. Throughout the last few months, graduate school has forcibly escorted me through some emotional times. And by some, I mean several. By several, I mean on the daily. You get the idea.

At some point along the way, my thoughts on school began to shift. The feeling in me changed from initial excitement to having been accepted into the program, to disappointment at having been subjected to it. The long hours, the infrequent breaks, the constant, never-ending stream of studying which awaited my every waking moment. It’s been, to put it mildly, unreal.

I feel like normal stress-the good, or at least tolerable kind-allows some space for head clearing.  Normal stress feels like a pain in the ass-like the guest who continues to hang out at your house despite everyone else having gone home and you suddenly find yourself cleaning, not because you’re bothered by the mess, but because you’d rather do anything than continue to entertain this person. But the thing with normal stress is that it gets tired of being the bad guy. Normal stress takes breaks every once in a while, because even normal stress has to pee.

Last semester’s stress was not normal. It did not pause to clear its throat, use the loo, or get a breath of fresh air. Instead, it rather torturously demanded a sort of super-human attention. It was not just your needy girlfriend; it was her psychotic, insecure, calls you at the same time she’s ringing your doorbell evil twin. The stress demanded all of my focus, and wasn’t satisfied until I said, “Okay, you win. I will no longer sleep.”

The semester asked for everything I’ve got, and then some. It beat me down repeatedly, and each time I’d regain my footing, it would knock me down again. Without my knowing, it had me sign on the dotted line of a document which read: “Gone is your life.” Any attempt at establishing a sense of normalcy or routine outside of school was useless and foolhardy. No matter how I tried to pretend I had a control on things, my emotion-laden sleeves were quick to reveal otherwise.

As you can imagine, this kind of stress poses several complications. From the mental toll-sleep-deprived feelings of powerlessness-to the physical-weight gained or lost, new blemishes popping up every which way-last semester’s stress was a new and twisted type of fucked up. Pardon my language. I’m not offended by that word. Unrelenting in its demands, school requested that life, as I once knew it, disappear completely.

Now, at this point I have sufficiently explained my thoughts on this program. If the point is unclear, please refer back to paragraphs 1-6. Reading all of this might beg the question, “But, why? Why put yourself through something so awful, when the outcome of such an experience offers no guarantees?” These would be fair ponderings, and if you were beside me asking such things aloud, I would willfully shake your hand. But the truth is, I don’t have an easy or ready-made answer.

When I begin formulating the “why” in my head, my mind is led in many directions. Why have I ever done anything difficult in my life? Why have I intentionally inflicted suffering upon myself, and what good-if any-came from the experience? I could argue that I’m going through all of this pain and anguish for the good of the people. That I’m suffering to single-handedly improve the state of healthcare in this country. But if I were to proclaim as much, I would surely hope to be challenged, because this reasoning isn’t consistent with the overall truth. All of our life’s actions should take into account the bigger picture, but it is not solely for bigger picture fulfillment that we endure the tough stuff. Sometimes, it’s the very act of overcoming our own modest barriers that provide us with a feeling of purpose and accomplishment.

Although I have come close a number of times, I have yet to quit. My refusal to quit can be assessed from multiple angles, but I’m going to credit a piece of my past in order to shed light on the subject at hand. I’d like to introduce you to Master Yong Sue Rho. Master Rho deserves a bit of praise for his commitment to teaching me life principles long before I could understand what these things meant.

In my former life, Master Rho taught me taekwondo. Besides schooling me in blocks and punches, he taught me a great deal about perseverance. As I bumbled my way through Korean counts of 1-10, and roundhouse-kicked my way up the colored belt chain of command, I learned about patience and hard work. I learned that in order to advance to black belt status, I would have to first acquaint myself with the rainbow (namely yellow, blue and red colored belts).

I haven’t always been good at respecting the rungs of hierarchy, but as a ten-year-old tot practicing tae kwon do, I had no choice but to respect the rules as they were. It was a time in my life, much like school is now, that required I no longer attempt to set my own rules. Martial arts, like graduate school, operates under the assumption that personal sacrifice is the only way towards advancement. Skillfully crafting ways to achieve a life balance is admirable, but in this instance, unlikely to be successful.

While I am beginning to come to terms with this sacrifice, the time trade-off will remain a struggle until the day I graduate. If and when that day comes, I hope to feel stronger and more disciplined than I did a year ago. And one year before that. This program has taught me that while personal boundaries are comforting, it’s not until those boundaries are pushed poked and prodded that a sense of reward is felt.

The bottom line: Hang tight during the hard stuff, in order to see it through. Remember Master Rho’s philosophy, and know that giving up won’t earn you the black belt. Your best bet in times of struggle is to do one thing, and one thing well: persevere.


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