“Bordering Brilliance:” The Dangerous Comfort of Accepting Almost

I had this English professor once. A squirrelly sort of guy, with a booming voice and a keen sense of humor. He liked to pontificate, giving monologues about the importance of thinking beyond the box. He pushed this agenda with odd writing assignments. A favorite was when he assigned each of us a word to write about it. He emphasized that it should not be about the word’s historical evolution.  Instead, he wanted us to discuss the word’s qualities.  How it sounds, how it tastes, what image comes to mind as it rolls off your tongue. For English 101, this was pretty abstract. But I have always loved words, so the chance to wax philosophically about one lifted my little 18-year-old heart.  I wrote the whole thing within a couple of hours and turned it in early.

A week or so later, we got our grades. I beamed at the A plastered at the top of my page, eager to read through the slanted notes scribbled in the margins.  Everything was pretty standard, a few “nicely done”s and “good point”s. But then I stumbled upon the holy grail of comments. Next to a sentence underlined in bright green read, “This is bordering brilliance.” My first paper in college and a professor actually believed something I wrote was potentially brilliant? I was ecstatic. I felt so validated.  It was as though I had truly arrived as a writer. I rode that high well into the next week.

Throughout college and beyond, I encountered others who confirmed my supposed “brilliance.” That attested that one day I would indeed be something great. That I had all the makings of the next so and so, if I just put my mind to it. While this praise was (and let’s be honest, still is) welcomed, there is something about receiving such accolades when your potential is still “unrealized.” It’s all the giddy excitement the night before Christmas without the Christmas. The elation of finishing your last final of college without the graduation. You live off the anticipation of what could be, off the hope and the dreams of how great it will be while still living on the cusp of greatness. You get comfortable because to actually be great, you have to live up to the title. At least here, in the world of almost, I can be appreciated for what I could be without any of the trappings of actually being that person.

While this does keep me in a perpetual state of anxiety and near mental collapse, it’s the hell I know, which means something. Because that place, beyond the cusp, is scary. Because if I do not make it, if I do not succeed, then it means I was never bordering brilliance at all. Just another wannabe who believed she was a real somebody. And by living so long in the land of in between, I honestly do not know if I have what it takes to even cross over. What if I have already spent too much time here, dooming my soul to a life of mediocrity? What if that spark my professor saw has been snuffed out by years of indecision and wrong choices and self-doubt? The uncertainty of it all is enough to drive you mad.

But then, in the midst of the madness, I see it, faint yet bright. The glimmer, the golden sheen of that hard worn nugget of belief that I have carried in my figurative back pocket, a talisman tethering me to the infinite possibility of what could be. And I find myself wondering if I am truly ready to let that go. If I want to surrender to a life half lived because living it fully is too frightening. And while I am still unsure if I am ready, if I will ever actually be more than “almost,” I know I am not ready to let go of the promise, the dream, the whisper that I am more than past mistakes and present missteps. And the best that I will ever feel on the cusp is content. And there’s nothing more dangerous than accepting less because you are afraid to go for more. And that is a tragedy I refuse to accept.

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