Turning Over a New Leaf

by Alexa DiCostanzo | 3/6/19 2:25am

There is an ancient Sufi poem that goes,“Sorrow prepares you for joy. It violently sweeps everything out of your house, so that new joy can find space to enter. It shakes the yellow leaves from the bough of your heart, so that fresh green leaves can grow in their place. It pulls up the rotten roots, so that new roots hidden beneath have room to grow. Whatever sorrow shakes from your heart, far better things will take their place.”

Ahem. Now that I’ve quoted Rumi like some kombucha-sipping, flower crown-wearing, basic white girl with an “Om” tattoo, let’s talk about what this poem means. I read these words years ago and, admittedly, had no idea how to relate to them. Sorrow? As a precursor to joy? What? Why? Wasn’t it possible to just skip over sorrow and self-doubt, and fast-forward to singing and dancing and self-actualization? I used to think I had to avoid pain at all costs. I ran from fear, rejection and uncertainty like it was the plague. But an interesting, nagging fact of life eventually revealed itself to me after enough heartbreak and disappointment came to pass. The fact of the matter is, every worthwhile and life-changing experience I have ever had has come directly or indirectly out of rejection, failure or loss. 

As human beings, we know that to live means to experience sorrow, even if we later realize our problems aren’t the end of the world. Each time we encounter unrequited love, a breakup, a rejection from a school or job; whenever we are criticized, step outside our comfort zone, lose a competition or feel lonely, we are reminded of just how vulnerable we can be. Suffering, ranging from the minute everyday stressors to lifelong hardships, is a human universal. We all feel bad when we do poorly on a test, struggle in the aftermath of a breakup or consider the fact that our job applications have all gone unanswered. Most of us feel fear and apprehension when we move to a city far from friends and family, where everything is new and unfamiliar. Each change is terrifying in its own way, and each, in its own way, entails some version of sorrow. 

More important, though, is what we do with the space that our sorrows hollow out within us. How do we cope with feelings of emptiness, insecurity and loss? How can we use discomfort, rejection and uncertainty as opportunities to enact positive changes in our lives? What are the green leaves will grow in the place of others that were so violently swept out of your house? 

Rejection is a cruel teacher, but it can also remind us of our potential for resilience and strength. Jamie Fenton ’20 spoke about her early days in Hanover, “[After arriving at Dartmouth,] my life got really chaotic. I got really sick, I broke up with my boyfriend and [I lost] a lot of things that made me feel grounded.” She had to forge new paths when she returned to school after the breakup, which was intimidating and scary. “But sometimes it takes everything being uprooted at once to realize you can navigate the situation,” she said. “I think you start to think you have to depend on certain people to get you through weeks at Dartmouth. But suddenly you come back, and things are fine. You’re like, ‘Oh, I actually didn’t really need that person.’ If anything, the relationship was exhausting.” 

As Henry Ford famously said, “failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.” In high school, Breanna Glover ’22, who now runs track here at Dartmouth, started off her freshman year track career as one of the “slowest people” on the team. By the time she graduated and started preparing for college, however, she had become one of the fastest people in the state. The journey wasn’t always easy. “My first time at States, as a sophomore, I came in last [during my race]. By 15 seconds,” she said. So how did she decide to persevere in the sport, rather accept a loss?     “Rather than thinking of the whole race as a failure, or my whole season as a failure, I think it was really important to view failure as an agent for change,” Glover said. She suggested that we grow more when things aren’t handed directly to us — hardships force people to evolve and work harder. “There’s a little part of me, deep down, that knows if I work hard enough, if I keep at something enough, and be persistent, things will eventually play out,” she said. “I think I have faith in the fact that I know I work hard. When things don’t go my way, it’s just going to motivate me more.”

Rejection can also come with its own silver linings, as Edward Lu ’21 learned after he was turned down from the undergraduate advisor program this year. “I was pretty salty for a hot second,” he admitted. “I was upset for the whole week. I didn’t know what to do with myself after I was rejected.” But, he says, the dismissal was probably a blessing in disguise. “I realized [afterwards] what a time commitment it was, and being in the musical this year, I wouldn’t have been able to really handle that,” he said. “I applied for it again this year, and now I feel a lot more prepared for it.”

I have done some pretty dramatic things to grow some proverbial green leaves. After a breakup, I like to take a break from routine. I’ll often do a less than luxurious version of what travel brochures might call a “rejuvenating weekend in Paris/Vegas/Florida,” except my getaway lasts three to five weeks and I live somewhere without indoor plumbing. It would be sad if it wasn’t so effective. Having your senses assaulted is a good way to reset your mental batteries. The best part of it, though, is that those novel experiences don’t just take my mind off of who or what I’m trying to move on from. The people I meet, hobbies I pick up and ways in which I inevitably evolve help to fill that space that loss created. When I’m finally ready to properly grieve the end of a relationship, I have a whole new repertoire of incredible memories, friends and inspiration to fall back on. What’s more, I’m prouder for having pushed myself to new limits. It sounds corny, but it’s true, or else I wouldn’t do it so often.

Living in limbo is scary. But without our hardships, we’d never be pushed towards personal progress and change. Struggle is an indicator of growth. It is almost impossible to evolve without suffering, because to be challenged, by definition, is to be pushed to our limits. To rejection, loss, fear, uncertainty and disappointment, I now say: bring it on. It may be uncomfortable to shed our old leaves, but the emptiness left in their wake offers up to us endless possibilities of something better, if we only have the courage to reach out and grasp them.