Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Summer of Self-Esteem

Okay, ready to get a little heavy-handed?

This has been a summer of many changes (most summers are like that). I say “has been” even though at the moment of this article’s publication it is merely the middle of August. I’ve got a few weeks left for summer to turn my life upside down all over again.

And yet I have the feeling that my chance for changes has passed. Maybe that’s because I can see the start of my first “real” job looming around the corner. Maybe it’s because all my friends who went away for the summer have come back. Maybe because I finally realized that I’m not going to take a class, get in shape, or have a torrid, chaste, Orthodox love affair this year.

I don’t know why I expect these things of the summertime in New York City. It’s that magical time of year when the movies are outdoors and free, when people have enough time to stroll through air conditioned museums or the sun-baked zoo. If they’re still in school in any form, people put their lives on hold for a bit.

People who are usually up all night studying suddenly have a moment to sit on a park bench and breathe. Those who spend their time with clubs and activities find they can lounge about like the lazy bums they’re not.  Coffee comes iced.

For me, the month of August is just a longer extension of that time of day called the gloaming. Yes, you can call it dusk or twilight, but I’d prefer to avoid any association with certain vampire-driven melodramas for the moment. Besides, no word seems to capture that mournful mood quite as well as “gloaming”. It has “loaming” and “gloomy” in there all at once.  

The gloaming used to be my favorite time of day. The end of the long afternoon, when the sun looks down at us as if to say, ok kids, you can stay up for five more minutes. August is pretty much like that. You can see the dark of the year up ahead. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are looming on the horizon (darn it, we’ve got to think about our conscience again?).

It’s summer’s last hurrah. What’s so different about this year that suddenly, I don’t especially care to enjoy the gloaming of the summer? Maybe it’s because this year, the three weeks fell a little later than usual.

That sounds dumb, but let me explain.

The three weeks stretching from 17 Tammuz to 9 Av are the most mournful days of the Jewish calendar, where an inordinate number of tragedies and disasters have historically plagued us. But to us modern New Yorkers (those who keep anything to do with the three weeks, anyway), it’s that inconvenient time where it stops being our New York summer. No public shows to attend, no more late nights in the park, enjoying the Jazz. No summer blockbusters. We have to stop being entertained, and look for ways to entertain ourselves. No concerts, no Broadway shows, no giant Imax screens.

And usually, these three weeks fall earlier, during the month of July, maybe at the end of June (like they did last year). So when they culminate with that mother-of-all inconvenient days, Tisha B’Av, we can get up the next day and still see a whole month ahead to get our summers back and do all the things we didn’t get a chance to do.

This year, Tisha B’Av fell well into August, so when it left, it took summer with it. Good bye, class I never took, track I never ran, boy I never stood around awkwardly, blushing.

It’s time to think about class and work again, the big scary future.

But before you all call the emo police on me, I have to say that while part of me mourns the loss of those attitude-changing summers filled with fun and experience, I’m also sort of grateful for the more grown-up version I found this year.

True, I haven’t had any romantic moments in Central Park or the East Village like last year. Okay, I haven’t buckled down and emerged with a completed art project like the year before. Fine, I didn’t go to Prague or Rome or Venice. But in some ways, I faced real life in a way I never have before.

I got a job. A real, yearlong one. I got an apartment in the city, moved in, bonded with my roommates, and spent my fast day dragging around Ikea bookshelves. I spent two weeks babysitting toddlers and changing diapers. I learned some lessons about people and their nature that I never wanted to know. I got disillusioned about a lot of things.

But oddly, and unlike some of those other summers, I emerged feeling…well… good about myself.  I faced some scary things this summer. Not horror and violence scary, but change scary. I realized that the people I spend my time with may not always be there for me when I need them... but that I can still deal with it on my own. I learned that (despite my concave biceps) if need be, I can rearrange an entire living room. I can deal with dead birds on the fire escape and 90 degree weather sans a/c. I can make rent (if only barely).

This may sound utterly ordinary, but it’s a big step on the maturity ladder, I think. Especially when you reach your goal and then have that horrifying moment of wondering whether you made a big mistake. Most of all, I learned to accept stupid situations that are not my fault. You know what I mean, when you show up to a costume party dressed as an over-sized rabbit only to see that the venue was changed to be black-tie, and that nobody bothered to tell you.

Well, that, but in more realistic scenarios. This is when we are challenged in that weakest of spots, our self-esteem.

I feel like having self-esteem is a little like falling in love. It’s a beautiful thing, and when you get it, it could be because of hard work and self-examination, but it could not be by your merit at all (some do get that natural born charm and dumb luck others so covet). Once you have a little of it, bucketfuls more seem to appear out of nowhere (when it rains, it floods your basement). The two are forever caught in the realm of self-fulfilling prophecy, sometimes overlapping. How many times have we been told that all it takes to get noticed is a little confidence? But then, don't we gain that confidence when someone takes notice of us?

When you lack love or self-esteem, you can’t help envying those who seem to be rolling in it. While you have it, you may not realize what a blessing it is. But even if you do, it can be easily broken by someone whose actions are out of your control. And when that happens, the rebuilding process often takes longer than you’d like to admit.

And worst of all, you have a tendency to blame yourself.

I hate to say it, but I’ve found that sometimes nasty disillusionment (which is less like love and more like accidentally getting the hot and cold knobs confused in the shower) is the key to gaining back that self-esteem. Sure, it was nice to see life as this wide-open sky, just waiting for us to fly out into the blue yonder, and our apartment as self-cleaning. And we loved to picture our friends as incredible people who were more interesting, more cheerful, more confident than we are, as people who would drag us up out of our personal depths.

But it’s those moments when we notice that life as a sky isn’t clear and blue, but stormy, and that the people we love are flawed… the time we notice that no matter what we did differently, nothing would have changed… the second we see that we must depend on ourselves, that we feel we’ve earned some self-esteem.

And maybe that’s where the similarities between self-esteem and love end. Heck, I don’t know. I’ve only just begun to build a little of that confidence. I’ve still got a lifetime of living with it to see if it does me any good. But I’m hoping, and optimistic, that it will… if only because for once, I’m not mourning the end of August, but looking forward to the start of September.  To the start of Tishrei.  To the New Year. This one’s going to be different than the last, just like this summer was a whole new type of summer. I can’t wait to see what it brings. 


  1. Here here!

    You may also be looking forward to this year due to your lack of evaluations (aka pounds of homework and tests). But I like what you said better.

    To an awesome year :) (and yes, I do feel like I'm holding a glass of champagne and clinking it to yours...)

  2. I remember reading a description of August as being pregnant with the fall. August is that mid month, though. It can be that calm before the storm, or it can be the overture to a new amazing beginning. It is all a matter of perspective.

    Gloaming has that misty, swampy feel to it. Mysterious with lots of potential, and powerful. I like crepuscule for twilight as well. Has that feel of the powerful night hunter-- big cats with their night vision. They know and see things we do not.

    just a thought.

  3. Setting's one self-esteem I would equate to fire. Used in the right way, you find out how useful a tool it can be, but left unchecked or handled inproperly,it can seriously burn you and everything around you.

    I find the idea of self-esteem to be something of a misplaced priority in our sights today. There is actually evidence that suggests motivational speakers and esteem coaches (And yes, self-esteem coaches do exist) actually are counterproductive in their goals towards productivity and motivation.

    When asking yourself about your own happiness, you have to realize the shortcomings in your abilities and choose to either work on them or not. One thing I will say that is certainly true for these speakers and coaches: You have to be the one to take the step.


Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.