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MIT blogger Cami M. '23

and i am afraid of falling by Cami M. '23

a long winded chess metaphor

I’ve been watching a lot of chess. Watching, not playing. My eyes hungrily gaze upon the little pieces on the screen as they hop from square to square, devouring and moving forward and moving back. I quietly trace the patterns. Pawn takes, knight takes back, bishop takes. It’s a game of who gets what, who ends up on top at the end of the day.

I’ve been listening to Mother, Mother a lot. Perhaps TikTok is to blame, snippets of their songs put together into one sound. I enjoy the unexpectedness of their music. Strange rhythms and patterns, hard to predict. Not as easy to follow.

I think to myself, as I’m hunched over my laptop and holed up in my tiny room, what if? What if I pursued music instead, making beats and strumming a guitar like the sounds playing in my ears? What if I dedicated myself to the black and white pieces on the board and learned the patterns like the back of my hand and anticipate every next move? What if this? What if that?

I’ve realized, lately, that I’m afraid of falling. I think I’ve always known, but I never really said it aloud all that often. “I’m afraid of failure,” I say. Well, yes, they reply, we know. “I can’t pursue these what ifs,” I say indignantly. Why? they ask. And I say, “Because what if I fail?”

To me, this is the most important what-if of them all.

This morning I had a conversation with a psychiatrist, who sat there watching me through his screen. Analyzing. Questioning. I found myself repeating the same story I tell everyone. I’m only child. I grew up in southern Californ–“Where?” I grew up in Los Angeles. “Okay, continue.” My parents divorced when I was three. I was raised by my mom and grandparents and–“How often did you see Dad?” Well, every weekend when I was a kid but it turned into every couple of months once I got older. We still talk, though. I had an okay childhood, a rough senior year…

And just like that, it continued, monologuing the major bits of my life into a quick 30 minutes. I remember every time I would talk about something difficult or hard, like how lonely I felt or how much I was struggling, I would smile and laugh a bit. I’d stare at the corner of the screen where I could see myself, like the little narcissist I am, with my eyes full of tears and my nose a horrid, stark red.

“You seem to put on a brave face a lot,” he commented casually. “You smile a lot when talking about these sad, sad things, like you’re trying to maintain control.” I felt a hot wave of embarrassment overcome me. I am easily read. I am predictable. I am just like everyone else.

“You also like to be in control a lot of the time, I’m assuming? And when you’re not in control, that’s when you start to be full of doubt or like you’re losing something. Am I correct?” I nod. And I gulp. Obviously these quotations are all paraphrased, but it’s what I remember. Again, embarrassment. I am easily read. I am predicable. I am just like everyone else.

I told him how I almost failed my class, but I didn’t. So it’s okay. “How are you feeling about it?” What do you mean? “Well, you’re still tearing up even when you talk about it, so it obviously bothers you.” I guess that he’s right. “Why do you tear up?” And it always comes back to this: embarrassment. I am embarrassed, I tell him flat and clear. I am embarrassed that I still tear up. It’s weak. How can a college class bring me to tears just at mentioning it? Shame, guilt, embarrassment — the trifecta.

I finish the Zoom call and sit blankly at my desk, feeling hollow. Feeling seen, but not with warm eyes. I feel like I’ve been examined and inspected, placed under a magnifying glass and a sweltering sun, or like a hand has been plunged into my stomach and is shuffling around all the bits and pieces inside.

I tell Raymond all the things that were said. “You should play chess,” he diagnoses. I remember playing a chess game last night. My rook and queen got forked by the opponent’s knight. I didn’t see it; I was too busy paying attention to a different fork between my bishop and queen. I moved her to what I thought was safety. But by the next move, my rook was gone. I resigned. Tears welled up in my eyes and there it was again: embarrassment. Why was I embarrassed for losing a chess game with no stakes nor consequences?

No, I do not want to play chess.

“You have to get used to losing, Cami.” He already knows. He saw how my face has soured and grown wet, or how my nose twitched with frustration as I hit “Yes, I would like to resign.” “It’ll be good for you. You’ll learn to deal with failure.”

It’s scary.

“How is it scary? There are no consequences.”

I feel stupid.

“It’s okay to feel stupid. You just go, ‘Wow, that was a good move. Next time I’ll remember that move so in the future I won’t fall into it again’ and then you get smarter. Everyone starts off bad.”

I want to only do things that I’m good at.

“Cami, that’s not how things work.”

For the past few hours, I’ve been contemplating playing chess. I look at the little Lichess app at the corner of my screen, hesitating as my hand hovers over the “10+5” button to start a match, before quickly scrolling to the bottom to play chess puzzles. With chess puzzles, you just get preset boards and are meant to make the best move. You don’t go through the full motions of the game.

When I fail, it feels like I’m letting someone down. Every rejection, every bad test grade, every rook lost to a nasty fork makes me feel as if I’m failing someone out there. It’s silly, but when I lose pieces, I apologize to them in my head. “Sorry, Mr. Knight, but I’m going to have to sacrifice you. It’s a good trade, though.” “Shit, I’m sorry, I can’t save both of you.” It’s like I’m letting them down, these little pixel pieces.

I look at all my notes and plans for break, all the unstarted passions projects that exist as words and not in full because I am afraid of starting. I am afraid of not doing them justice, of letting those projects down and not building them to their full potential.

A couple weeks ago, I went to New Hampshire with my roommates for a getaway, a break right before finals week. It was beautiful and haunting. I am blown away by how NH is a real place. In the area we were, there were very little light sources. The only light came from our headlights and it reflecting back at us from the signs on the road. Other than that, it was dark and ominous. Leafless trees paved every road and if you looked out, all you could see was an ocean of dark above a blanket of snow. It was peaceful, but slightly offputting.

My roommates insisted we went hiking. I thought back to the last time I went hiking, where my stupid little body failed me and broke itself in a couple of falls. My immediate reaction was no. No I do not want to fall again. No I do not want to fail again. No I do not want to let down my roommates by being injured and sad and sitting in a car all day.

But somewhere in me decided to say yes and I saw some of the most beautiful sights.

I was afraid of falling a couple of times. Mariia noticed my hesitations, breaking off from the path to find me a sturdy walking stick. With it, I was able to steady my footing and take braver steps.

I’ve realized, now, that there is no one being let down. The little chess pieces on the board have no emotion, and even if they did, they simply pop back up again with every game. The passion projects that sit rotting in the dark space of my notes app don’t resent me for not starting, nor will they be angry at me for doing them poorly. They can always be improved.

There is no one being let down, but myself. I put such immense pressure on myself to succeed, at the expense of never being able to fail. So this break, my goal is to fail. To have the roughest and grittiest of failures and watch my pieces get eaten one by one, sit back as I get mated in four or as I blunder my queen or hang my bishop, watch as my Elo plummets to a thousand.

And after I fail and wipe the grime and dust out of my eyes, I will not stay on the ground. I will get back up and do my silly little chess puzzles, apologize to my pieces, but tell them I will do better next time, and I will play again.