Conquering the Divided Self

What happens when you get a degree in chemistry from Harvard, but feel a competing pull to the world of narrative? You write a novel about this combustible state, of course.

By Nando Pelusi Ph.D., published September 5, 2017 - last reviewed on November 6, 2017

What happens when you get a degree in chemistry from Harvard, but feel a competing pull to the world of narrative? You write a novel about this combustible state, of course. Weike Wang, Ph.D., is the author of Chemistry, a funny, wise debut about the heartache of uncertainty and the struggle to please others while forging one's own path. 

How does a person say no and make peace with potentially giving up opportunities and disappointing others? 

Weike Wang Photo by Nando Pelusi

I have trouble saying no. In school, especially grad school, you are often discouraged from saying no, especially to anyone who has some say in where your career will be heading. You have to say yes at the beginning before you have the power to say no. Saying no comes with being more confident, getting older, and having a steadier grasp of your own trajectory. I think you must weigh the benefits and costs. Which is worse: disappointing someone or sacrificing your own personal happiness? In a lot of cases, your happiness and sanity are much more important. But what if the person you're disappointing is, say, a family member who has invested a lot of hope in you? Then the question becomes harder to answer. Moreover, to say that yes and no are the only options is very black and white. When have matters of the heart, of family, of friends ever been black and white? 

Science tells us why human emotions such as disappointment exist. But science doesn't tell us how to deal with them. I think this is a good thing and a sign that emotions (as well as the management of them) are both messy and universal. Science can be a comfort. Why do I feel depression? Maybe it's because of an imbalance of neurotransmitters or because of hormones. But why I feel depression could also be a more personal and less scientific question. 

In Chemistry, the protagonist is in the midst of a personal breakdown. She has a love/hate relationship with science as well as with the people in her life. She has been saying yes for a long time and suddenly decides to say no. I think scientists use their knowledge to justify important emotions, such as anger, love, and fear. But sometimes emotions are hard to explain. Bringing in scientific facts is a distraction but also a way of trying to explain away emotion. That's a contradiction.