I watch the Super Bowl every year. This February, 6,000 miles and seven time zones away from home, I made my way to a bar a stone’s throw from the U.S. Embassy in Amman, Jordan, to watch the Patriots lose to the Eagles. When the broadcast began at 1:30 in the morning, my hands were sticky from my late-night barbecue wings, and I was surrounded by expats: black Baptist missionaries from New Orleans, weathered nongovernmental organization administrators chatting in somersaulting Arabese with unreasonably cheerful embassy staffers, students in fraternity sweatshirts and students in hijab, both groups eating curly fries and drinking watery Egyptian beer.
In that moment, watching on a phalanx of flat screens as Pink — still a rockstar — belted out the national anthem, the room rustled to silence, and I felt myself settle into a surprising, heart-clenching equilibrium. It wasn’t that I missed home (though I did) or that I am particularly moved by displays of American diversity (though I am). It was more that, for the first time in many, many years, I felt like I was able to be wholly present for this Great American Spectacle.
Last year, I hosted a Super Bowl party in my suite. I checked out a projector from the art school, baked some lopsided chocolate cookies in the Pierson kitchen and mashed some avocados for homemade guacamole. We had PBR, Coors and Narragansett in the fridge. It was, by collegiate standards, an embarrassment of riches.
Though well-attended and well-appreciated, nobody was totally there. Everybody, instead, was working on something: frenetically flipping through Chinese notes, half-heartedly underlining in a Tyco course packet, scrolling through political science seminar readings, responding to club emails, editing an article for The Yale Herald. I had an Arabic quiz at 9:25 the next morning, so I was writing out flashcards between plays.
At that time, I had already decided I was going to study in Jordan. At that time, it was just a name. I could point it out on a map and summarize its geopolitical significance in two sentences, but it was never real for me. Imagining my future there conjured nothing but white static. So I was never excited, I was never informed and I could never give a satisfying answer to the question of why I was going, except a vague notion that I needed to get away. I am in love with New England — with the trees and the ocean, the cold, the mountains and the tight-lipped, self-sufficient people. But I wanted to make myself uncomfortable, maybe just to prove that I could.
I did not come to Yale intending to study abroad, but I also did not come to Yale understanding it for what it was: a place of insensitive, breakneck momentum. At school there is a deeply ingrained and irrational conflation of feasibility with obligation. “Could” becomes “should” without hesitation or critical assessment. People are talented and motivated enough to know how much they can do, and the perceived necessity of fulfilling that potential drives forward this relentless machine of public achievement. Contentment is an indulgence few feel they can afford. People are not gentle with themselves or with their friends, neighbors and classmates. Maintaining physical health — eating well, working out, staying hydrated, sleeping enough — is only discussed aspirationally. Pursuing emotional health is a radical countercultural statement unless it occurs between 11 a.m. on Saturday and 4 a.m. on Sunday.
Last semester I did laundry only 6 times, two of them at home during breaks. A good night saw me sleeping 6 hours. I was chronically late. I signed up for exercise classes at Payne Whitney Gym and went to exactly two sessions. Every day, from the moment I woke up to the moment I fell into bed, there was this tension in my back, stomach and head. I felt like my time was under siege from all sides. I have cried returning to school every semester, once — embarrassingly — while sitting with my parents in the middle of Prime 16. This is not because I hate school but because I hate feeling like I’m barely treading water. It takes a person of outstanding self-awareness, self-assurance and self-love to swim upstream against all the agitation and anxiety around them. This is not yet who I am, but it is who I want to be. Not at some indeterminate point in the future, contingent on Success, but now.
And so I am in Amman and not in New Haven.
But if I wanted a vacation, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan was the wrong place to study. It is extremely resource poor, and water in particular is severely limited. The tap water is not potable, and it arrives in a weekly ration. When showering or washing dishes, I have to shut the water off when soaping and scrubbing. Amman has grown faster than its infrastructure can accommodate, so the public transportation is haphazard and does not run on a time schedule, and the sidewalks are treacherous and overgrown where they exist. This means that, for a foreigner with no car, the only practical way to navigate the city is by taxi. There is a 26 percent tax on alcohol, cigarette smoke hangs in every hallway, cafe and cab, and — initially most shocking to me — flushing used toilet paper is not allowed.
And even with all the logistical and cultural differences to consider, the anxieties of home have still managed to reach me. A week ago, I made the mistake of thinking a little too hard about summer plans. It’s a familiar panic. What if nobody hires me? What if I can’t find a job after graduation? What if I’m unemployable? How will I be happy? Describing this catastrophic vortex to my mother later, I said, “I felt the Yale feeling,” by which I meant more than just flashing through the thought patterns familiar at a school so preoccupied with carefully planned steps to prestige. My body physically reverted to the same tense agitation that it carries through every day at school: the hunched shoulders, the clenched gut, the slow, encephalitic throbbing between the temples. Got to send some emails, got to check my GCal, got to hurry up, there’s hardly any time left.
But then I managed a thought. Tea. I wanted tea. Lipton yellow label, seemingly the only kind anybody drinks in this country. I lit a burner on the stove with a bright orange cigarette lighter. I poured hot water out of the portly steel kettle into the chipped china teacup. Glopped honey on top. Breathed in the steam. Drank as slowly as I could manage.
That evening I lay on my bed with the sliding door to my balcony wide open. My laundry was drying on the railings outside, and the floodlights from the maternity hospital across the street lit the tops of the date palms growing up from the middle of the sidewalk. The night air was cool and quiet, the silence broken only by the muezzin from the local mosque calling the evening prayer. At the tail of his diminuendos, the vibrato in his voice sounded like nothing more than the echo inside a seashell.
I felt like a feather, floating among the whitecaps out at sea, being carried by things outside of my control. I remembered, suddenly, the prayer pinned above the sink in the washroom at my childhood church: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things that I can and the wisdom to know the difference.” Even though I was alone, my cheeks flushed with embarrassment.
In general, I’m skeptical of epiphanies, and maybe this wasn’t that, but it was a moment of quiet, self-conscious understanding. I’ve spent a lot of my time at Yale trying to control things over which I have very little say. So much of college is selling yourself — to friends, to professors, to lovers, to employers — and so much of success is determined by how these people respond to your pitch. There is this illusion, then, that, if you are in control of the outcome, if you check all the boxes and do all the right things, you will be able to magic your way to any place you desire — so the narrative goes. But this could not be further from the truth. People are wonderful, strange and mysterious, systems of people all the more so. So it’s not that pursuing goals is useless but that it must be done with serenity, with eyes wide open. What is the friendship, the mentorship, the relationship, the employment for, anyway?
My guess is that, when you trace everything back to its source, the answer is happiness. But happiness is not like Elon Musk’s salary: It isn’t contingent on the achievement of a series of public benchmarks. It is an outlook, a reaction and — largely — a choice.
At the same time that I was trying to force the world to accommodate my goals, I also spent my time at school forgetting how much say I actually had over how I felt. Yale, for me, has always been an emotionally battering experience, mostly because there is neither time nor space to breathe deeply, to make myself a cup of tea and really think — in the calm and the quiet — about why I’m feeling the way I’m feeling. I spend a lot of time under the impression that my well-being is driven solely by the gales of nature and circumstance.
But this semester is different. That calm self-awareness that I felt, lying in bed, listening to the azan, has strung together many of my waking moments. I feel light, and I feel small, but also — for the first time in a long time — I feel powerful.
Maybe this would have happened anywhere I studied, but I think there is something particularly humbling about this place. Living here forces me to understand just how much electricity, food, water and internet it takes to keep me happy and healthy. The absentmindedly limitless culture of American consumption grates against the realities of demographics and geography. You can almost feel the city quivering as it tries to meet the demands of millions of people who have asked for too much too quickly. It is loud, and it is jumbled, dusty and crowded, and the masses of blockish limestone buildings seem to go on forever. It is a place that is both very young and very, very old. I climbed into a cave that has sheltered humans for 25,000 years only to find a Kentucky Fried Chicken bag and a spent Wi-Fi scratch card cast among the dusty stones.
It is also a place where God is never that far from mind. Every greeting, every desire, every appreciation and every exasperation is couched in terms of God. Cab drivers play suras of the Quran on the radio and hang prayer beads from their rearview mirrors. The call to prayer echoes throughout the city five times a day, from hundreds of minarets: “There is no god but God.”
Jordan also observes its Sabbath. On Friday, the cars that crowd the roads at all hours of the weekday seem to dissipate. Stores are closed. People don’t answer their phones. Anybody in the street moves slowly and speaks quietly, weighed down by the languid silence of a city of four million, paused. And for the first time in a long time, I am truly at rest.