Calculus is a subject whose very name tends to strike terror into the hearts of anyone who hasn’t taken it. It is, for whatever reason, infamous throughout the popular culture for its difficulty.
When I was teenager, I feared it. I was not especially gifted mathematically*, and so the thought that I would have to take it filled me with dread. My father, a math professor, related the grim statistics to me one day at supper. “Fifty percent of our students drop out, and of the remainder, fifty percent fail.**”
Needless to say, when I reached first-year university, I was deeply concerned to say the least. I had not yet fully committed myself to majoring in physics, but I knew that if I wanted to leave this option open to myself, taking calculus in first year was a necessity.
So I did so. And so terrified was I by the very reputation of this subject that I attended every single lecture and lab, no matter how sick I was feeling, and studied it on my own for at least two or three hours every day
A strange thing happened: I found, to my surprise, that I could do it. That, by staring at my notes for hours at a time and intently studying the textbook, I could actually wrap my brain, successfully, around this legendarily difficult subject. And I excelled.
But at the same time, at the back of my mind, there was always this little voice nagging at me, reminding me that somehow, what I was doing was impossible. I felt that I was like some character in an old Chuck Jones cartoon, having run off of a cliff and yet remaining aloft in the air; that if I ever looked down, so to speak, and considered what precisely it was that I was actually doing, then I would come crashing down to Earth.
So I adopted a simple maxim: Don’t look down. Focus on what you are doing, step by step, and then once you get back on solid ground, then and only them can you start to pay attention once again to the fact that you essentially just walked a mile across thin air.
I have felt this exact way about developments in my life over and over again across the past several years. You’re getting two completely unrelated degrees in Physics and History? Don’t look down. You’re all alone in a city on the far end of the continent, with no contacts, no car, no experience living all by yourself? Don’t look down. You’re transitioning to a woman? Don’t look down.
I must admit, though, that in Grad School there has just been so much of this stuff, occurring with such frequency, that from time to time, I have been forced to look down. Indeed, this is probably the best way to conceptualize my anxiety: it arises from the few moments when I start to look down and notice that I am a transsexual woman living in a bachelor suite with her ex-girlfriend, pursuing an advanced degree in theoretical physics while cooking her own meals, paying her own rent and utilities, doing her own taxes and worrying about her own future. And in those instants, I do indeed come crashing back down to Earth.
I am defending my thesis in a week. One last week of not looking down.
*Although, frankly, this had far more to do with inept high school teaching methods than it did with me personally.
**As I recall, he was at the time ranting about how university administrators were complaining to him that he was giving away too many A’s in calculus.