The Art of Starting Over

In the last six months, my entire life fell apart.

I broke up with my fiancé of seven years, cancelled a wedding, found out I didn’t get into a single grad school, and fully understood the consequences of my deteriorated personal relationships.

As the entire world I’d created disintegrated, I watched my coworker with envy. She was getting married to her fiancé. She got into graduate school at Vanderbilt (my favored graduate school). She received a Taylor Medal, one of the most prestigious awards you can win at the University of Mississippi. She still had God to lean on.

I watched her live the life I thought I had earned.

I felt guilty every time I felt the pangs of envy in my gut. Our lives could not look anymore different: she was the obedient daughter of a Methodist minister. We shared a major, but her studies led her to a closer relationship with God while mine led me away. She had a happy, fulfilling relationship. She had a family that seemed to truly care about each other, parents she adored and respected who, in turn, adored and respected her.
I didn’t want her morals—she’s far too conservative, in my opinion—but I wanted what she had. I wanted the life I thought I had earned, the life I thought I was promised.

One morning in late April, I told her, “You make me want to be a Christian again.”

If her life is the result of the truly transformative nature of Christ, I wanted it. If every Christian was like her, I’d believe that Christianity was extraordinary. I can’t speak of this woman highly enough; she’s intelligent, kind, compassionate, patient, understanding, and a blessing to know.

Maybe that made my envy worse.

Losing everything you’d planned your life around is an indescribable feeling. Those who’ve felt it understand it acutely. You feel like you’re dying, like there’s nothing left in this world and it is imploding around you. Every breath you seem surprised that you’re alive, because the world is so clearly over. The pain radiates from your kneecaps to your collarbones to your scalp.

It feels like you’re dying because part of you has died

Do you rebuild with what you’ve got left? Do you burn everything from before and start anew? Do you sit in the rubble of your life, throwing the ashes on your head and sobbing a funeral dirge at the remains of a life you thought was promised, not pot65ential?

In May, with seemingly nothing left in my life bar a few friends and family members, I applied for a job in China teaching English, as well as a two week summer program on philosophy in Beijing. I never imagined that I’d be accepted by either.

But I got into both.

I came up with a thousand different scenarios for living in China. I’d written the story in my head a million times. I was terrified, but I also had nothing else to do with my life. I decided the two weeks in China would be a test run.

I expected to hate every minute of China. I figured I’d be miserable and lonely. I was nauseous the entire plane ride over, dreading two weeks of isolation and the impending hatred of a country I’d never seen. There were 40 other participants from 22 countries, but I had decided no one would like me. It seemed like no one liked me at home.

But, in China, everyone loved me

They thought I was funny and wise and kind. They saw me as I wish I saw me. As I wish everyone saw me. I’m aware that my two weeks in China weren’t truly representative of China because of how sheltered the experience was, but it was honestly, easily the two best weeks of my entire life.

In November, I’m moving to Beijing, and I’m utterly overwhelmed and overjoyed. I wrote this in my journal on the journey back:

“I am funny. I am sensitive. I am kind. I am the girl people trust. I project confidence and authenticity. I am gentle and good and open: open to myself, open to a breadth of experiences, open to the world.

Despite all I have suffered, I am trusting and careful with the world. I expect the best. I love.

Every day I wake up and choose to live and love and experience. I’m so much more than I ever thought I could be.

Multiple people told me they were forever changed for having known me. That they now know that kindness and positivity are real.

I’m starting to think my pain and hurt is based on my environment. No matter how much we’d like to have a penguin in Mississippi, no matter how we build a safe place with chilled water and fake snow, a penguin belongs in the Antarctic. It’s not meant for Mississippi.

I’m meant for so much more.”Phoebe 1

For the first time since January, I’m not envious of the woman I worked with. Not because I think her life is bad, but because I’m happy with the trajectory of my life.

Happy may be too strong of a word. I’m content with where life is currently leading me. I’m writing this in my old bedroom in my parents’ house and I’m about to pack up all of my things and move to China like a damn crazy person.

But I’m going to actually, genuinely live. There’s so much more to life than the state I’ve grown up in and I’m actually going to experience it.

More than that, I’m going to live after such a transformative loss. This is a life I never could have had with my ex or if I had gotten into graduate school. That path wasn’t a bad one. Some days I wish I was still on it.

But this one will be so much more exciting.


Photo Credit: Phoebe Boleyn Vowles-Webb



3 thoughts on “The Art of Starting Over

  1. Beautiful, honest, inspirational. Reading this reminds me of Emerson’s essay on Self Reliance. You and all of us who have gone through disappointment and difficulty and pressed on are more human and more resiliant because of it.

    Cast the bantling on the rocks,
    Suckle him with the she-wolf’s teat;
    Wintered with the hawk and fox,
    Power and speed be hands and feet.


  2. I am really proud of you. I know your journey hasn’t been easy, but I’m inspired by what you have to say, even when I don’t agree with all of it. Your writing comes across as intelligent and insightful, without losing its ease and honest emotion. That’s something I struggle with in my own writing. I wish you the best for your journey. One of my colleagues is from China, and my roommate actually taught English in China, and if you’d like to talk to either of them for moral support or anything, let me know.


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