Assume the best—and hope for it, too

By the time the e-mail arrived that day, I was really not in the mood to receive it. The subject line alone failed to disclose the contents of the brief note, which had been sent to inform me (courteously) that I had not been selected to move beyond the first round of nominations for a fellowship for which I had applied in late autumn. Like most rejection notes, it was long on pity and short on words. It informed me that many [insert positive adjective here] students had applied for the funding, and that the selection process had been very [difficult/onerous/involved/meticulous]. It suggested (perhaps in an attempt to keep my chin up) that I should consider getting a loan, and ended by thanking me for my time.

All in all, your average rejection note.

In fact, it was very much like another rejection letter that I had already received earlier in the day, which thanked me for my application to the 1L summer associate program at [insert firm name here] but [regretted/was sorry/was sad] to inform me that [many/a great many/a higher than usual number of] applicants had made this year’s job search especially [competitive/selective/challenging]. It hoped that I would consider the firm again in the following summer (not likely) and wished me the best of luck (ha!) in my continuing job search.

Yes, rejection is a very special thing, and a double dose in the space of a few hours was difficult for me to handle. Rejection letters are usually the first to make it into the Trash folder (or litter bin) because they’re not the sort of thing to be dwelt upon after the fact. No one likes to be reminded of having been told “no.”

Yet as hard as it is to endure rejection, we manage to avoid it much more frequently than we end up receiving it in the end. And how do we do this? By refusing to ask at all.

Because rejection is something we all fear, it always seems so much easier to avoid the plunge. Put off the risk, skip the big question, back away instead of moving forward, just don’t ask. Because if you don’t ask (or so the reasoning goes), you’ll never have to hear what you fear the most.

Sadly, though, this entire line of reasoning stems from the assumption that “no” is the answer we’re most likely to hear. If we assumed that the odds were for us rather than against us, we would ask. If we assumed that our chances were good, we would not hesitate to act. If we trusted ourselves enough, or had a high enough opinion of ourselves, or had a greater belief in potentials or possibilities or tomorrow or whatever it is that fuels optimism, then we would not assume that “no” is the default.

And think of what could be possible then!

But usually the reasoning never quite gets us that far. We check our confidence at the door. We refuse to consider the improbable possible, despite the fact that perhaps it only grows more possible with each passing day. We say “not me” or “I could never” or “that’s for other people.”

We refer to “real life.”

We prefer fear.

We so convince ourselves that “no” will be the answer that we answer “no” for ourselves.

And in so doing, we do a better job of fulfilling our own fears than anyone else could have done for us if we had given them the chance. We trip before the gun. We fade before we bloom.

What a frustrating way to go on in life! Out of what great joys might we not cheat ourselves? Into what status quo might we not wrap ourselves? How long will we tell ourselves “no” simply to prevent others from doing so?

It’s not just rejection that we fear; it’s failure. Rejection is merely a form of failure, and failure has many faces in which it can masquerade. Perhaps we think we can hide from all of them by putting on our own mask—the one that blinds us to any real possibility of success and closes our eyes to hope—but in this way we cheat ourselves out of our best, and perhaps out of others’ best, as well.

I do not have the solution to this conundrum. I’m just as trapped by it as anyone else. “Tis better to have loved and lost,” says Tennyson, “than never to have loved at all”… but that’s easy to forget when you’re considering whether to put it all on the line. Whether it’s a job or a school, a relationship or a crazy stunt, it’s always easier to deny oneself what could have been than it is to give the world the chance to do that for you.

Perhaps there are some folks out there who are immune to it—who can throw themselves under the bus without a second thought and spring back again for another go. And perhaps the only way to become one of those impervious people is to force oneself through the fire a couple of hundred times until it doesn’t hurt anymore.

Perhaps.

But for the majority of us who probably aren’t going to do that, I hope at the very least that we can take a larger leap of faith today than we did yesterday. Rejection may never get any easier, but neither may life if we don’t at least try.

I think that the key is remembering that the answer is just as likely to be “yes.” It may be unwise to count on it, but the old, safe position of assuming the worst and hoping for the best much more frequently leads to the former than to the latter. Perhaps that’s not a coincidence.

If we can occasionally get over the fear—if we can remember, from time to time, that even “real life” is full of plenty of happy endings—then maybe we can convince ourselves, even if only for a moment, that the next time the answer will be “yes.”

And if that moment comes at the right time, and leads to the right leap, the possibilities may truly be endless.

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