Although this essay contradicts a lot of our advice—it focuses on the author’s childhood, brings up her mental health, and doesn’t really tell a story—it’s one of the best we’ve ever seen. To me, it’s an example of the 80-20 meta-rule: rules about writing are true about 80% of the time.
The summer I was ten was unbearably hot, humid, and mosquito-ridden, as every summer in suburban Maryland has been since the beginning of recorded time. I spent the first half of summer in the usual way: careening around the neighborhood at breakneck speed with a rotating collection of mitts, helmets, and roller blades attached to various parts of my body. Once in a while, I would be prevailed upon to yank a few weeds or wash some dishes after dinner. But mostly I played. It is telling that I was separated from my deepest fear (a deadly Australian jellyfish) by a continent and two oceans.
But somewhere in the middle of the summer, something threw my mind off balance. The ordinary scenery of my life became nightmarish and empty, as if a shifting camera angle had revealed my house to be a stage set. My limited ten-year-old emotional range was inexplicably swept away and replaced by a uniform, acid dread. Suddenly I was terrified not of poisonous sea creatures or spiders or my dad’s booming reprimands but of my own hostile brain. I can still feel the first time a hug from my mom left me completely cold, my stomach plunging in recognition that I was on my own. Worse, my strange panic and isolation seemed to infect the past as well as the present. I became more and more certain that I had always felt this way underneath: that I never had, and never would, be genuinely happy.
I was wrong, of course. Ten-year-olds are not known for their sense of perspective. But I was diagnosed later that year with depression, a disease handed down from generation to generation of my family like a bunion or an ugly nose. It came and went without warning throughout my teens and early twenties. That same acid dread would dissolve all evidence that I had ever been happy, leaving constellations of negative memories like a connect-the-dots drawing depicting certain doom. But this story isn’t about my suffering or fortitude or resilience, none of which have been anything out of the ordinary. Fortunately, each bout of depression has receded without any heroic effort on my part. However, living in and out of depression has shaped me in surprising ways. Feeling the inexplicable ebb and flow of the conviction I will never be happy has ingrained in me a visceral understanding of how easily facts align themselves to narratives—whether personal or political. I am conscious of the relentless pull that preexisting beliefs and attitudes exert on the way that we search for, recall, and interpret facts. So I work to identify and challenge the other narratives that shape my thinking. I step back far enough from the economic theories that underlie my work as a consultant, the basic tenets of feminism, and my deep aversion to eating dinner before seven to give them all at least a critical once-over.
More importantly, I have learned empathy and humility. In a way, I have been someone else, a person who finds my optimism about life to be painfully naive. And who’s to say that she is wholly wrong? By revealing my own perspective on the world to be biased and inconsistent, my experiences with depression have enabled me to connect with people whose deepest religious, political, and cultural convictions differ from mine. I think of my friend Derek, a former ESL student of mine from the Congo who once told me (while shaking his head in distaste) that “lesbians are just bitter women who can’t find a good man.” He had no idea at the time that he was speaking to—you guessed it—an out-and-proud queer woman. At that point, a lot of people would have walked out. But, outraged as I was, I chose a friendly argument over dismissal or even an angry lecture. I could see why his perspective would seem natural to him in context. After all, what could be more absurd than a ten-year-old lying in the fresh-cut grass of a cushy suburban home, preparing to face certain doom?
The open-mindedness and analytical flexibility that I have developed from coping with depression will serve me well as a law student and as a lawyer. Because I have experienced the hazards of cleaving to a single narrative, I instinctively search for different angles and analytical frameworks with which to approach a problem, and I adapt seamlessly to new information and shifts in focus. Moreover, by refusing to shut out even the most jarring of alternative perspectives, I maintain versatility, creativity, and cross-cultural understanding. I hope that law school will give me the opportunity to develop those skills by continuing to engage with people and ideas that challenge me.