Three Things

A brief note, and what I needed to hear.

Eric ZhangApril 5, 2022

Warning: If we’re not acquainted well, you might not get much out of reading this.

A friend recently asked me about my dating life. I replied: “I was seeing someone recently, but it didn’t work out, still was fun though.”

I went through a breakup a bit over a month ago. Although I don’t make a big deal out of it, lightly brushing it off when it comes up in conversation with a few curt words, it still hit pretty hard because she meant a lot to me. I don’t get close to that many people. It’s been a couple years since I felt as safe and intimate with anyone. I mostly got advice from one friend about this, who was kind, listened, and made me feel better about what I should do.

Besides that friend, I guess my suitemates told me “aw, fuck her” despite me asking them not to comment, which added a bit of… levity? (humor? aloofness?) to the situation too. I don’t agree with these words, but it was a gesture of support.

If we backtrack a couple years ago, I was going through a really emotionally difficult time. (I was isolated, lonely, and couldn’t find joy in other people. I had just lost several close friends I had spent time with in college, who turned out to be friends of convenience. Over COVID-19 lockdown, I was engrossed in writing lots of code, learning math, and consuming “digital media.” I remember quipping people might be mean and irrational, but computers aren’t.) But I started writing around that time, and slowly I wrote myself out of dejection.

Since then I’ve taken to words to process my emotions when they’re too hard for me to live through. I read to feel. I write to understand what I feel. A million loose thoughts swirl and threaten to be blown away by a passing breeze, unless I can gather them and pin down their essence. It’s also been a way to develop a sense of self: creative voice and values.

Over the last month, I wrote about the breakup. This person’s name (let’s call her Z) appeared in my journal over 200 times. It tracks worry, anxiety, times I thought about Z and immediately reprimanded myself for doing so; fond memories, less-fond memories; some little things we made for each other in the past, other things I tried to do for Z only to be told off; attempts at apology, communication, and eventually, us not ending up on speaking terms.

I handled the breakup relatively well, even as a lot of other life commitments suddenly intensified: job-hunting, briefly ending up in 8 classes this semester (4 is normal), writing my thesis, projects for work, travel, extracurriculars. A couple friends still asked me why I smile so much: “Did something good happen to you, Eric?” No, but being able to smile at others by default makes me feel really fortunate, even if I’m consumed by stress and worry.

Although Z wasn’t the longest I’ve seen someone, it felt significant. Maybe it’s because I think Z is a good person and uniquely admire her a lot. I also think Z has shown me how to smile and warmly welcome others — endow small actions with care, even make friends with strangers — better than anyone else I know. Z is so curious and genuinely passionate about people: work and education systems, creating better institutions, learning and documenting.

All of this is lead-up for three things I want to believe:

  1. I am not a bad person; it just turned out that Z and I weren’t compatible. We weren’t mutually able to provide what each of us emotionally needed, as we dealt with personal struggles.
    • I’m thankful for being able to smile at and genuinely appreciate others.
    • And I’m lucky that my work and writing has inspired people around me; they find it meaningful and are willing to lend an ear to my voice — a platform. To them, I’m worth something.
  2. I don’t need Z or any specific romantic partner in my life to be happy. There’s so much to do as an individual if I just have the patience and courage to look around myself.
    • Even as I grow older, I think I’ll always slightly embody the “20-year-old guy who knows 5 people in NYC, chasing dreams and spending his weekends wandering around the city” energy that grew on me last year.
    • Gazing out across the vast world and our radiant future.
    • Exploring, satisfying curiosity, discovering passions and beautiful stars. Finding a place for yourself. Doing work, changing someone’s life, creating an artifact that is worth admiring.
  3. It’s okay to cry sometimes. It’s okay to cry by yourself or in the presence of others. It’s okay to want to cry, to question yourself, to feel pain and hurt.
    • The dark side of life is also what leads to the most moving stories. Sorrow, loss, anger, fear, guilt, loneliness. It’s not something to be ashamed of.
    • I can’t imagine life without negative emotions. That’s so boring!

The broad points of “being good” / “independence” / “ok to cry” are pretty universal, I hope. They’re actually repeated so often to be banal. But I needed to hear them again anyway, give them time to sink into my skin and circulate my body as I continue striving to cultivate passion and kindness.

I’m doing alright. But there will be more feelings in the future. I don’t expect this to be the last breakup in my life or the worst one. Hopefully by penning this note and committing to it, I can rationalize the feelings.

We write to be seen, to express some kind of cautious optimism that others understand us.