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musings on duty and purpose by Shuli J. '22

brought to you by slow ambles through lobby 10 at twilight

November 13, 2018

Thanks to Petey and Kathleen for giving me the idea to blog about this and helping me think about how to formulate it!

I’ve been very contemplative lately. In my first few weeks here I had tons of questions, but they were “easy” ones: how do I register for classes? If I use the last of the toilet paper in the hall bathroom, should I replace it and how? What’s the fastest way to get from Building 2 to E25?

At the same time, too, there was so much else going on — I was constantly delighted by new realizations about this place I would call home, and I felt a drive to be social, to make friends, and to participate in class events that wouldn’t come around again.

Now I know the answers to those questions,01 1) your academic advisor will show you; 2) yes — go to the closet and get another roll and it will pop right into the holder; 3) go out through building 14 and cross the dot and this place feels like a home and not a brief and wild summer camp, and so I’m starting to be able to hear myself — not other people, but myself — think again.

And what I’m thinking, apparently, is a lot of much bigger questions. Questions like, “what does it really mean to exist in this world as an adult” and “what do I owe to the people around me and the world in general” and “what should I be taking away from my time here at MIT?”

Spoiler alert: unlike the other questions, I’m not gonna be able to answer these ones in this post. But here’s what I’ve been thinking, I guess:

In high school I had a few clubs I’d been part of for a long time, that I knew a lot about and that, by senior year, I was in charge of, and in high school and even earlier, I always knew I wanted to go to MIT. This gave me dual purposes: I wrote club meeting agendae, planned events, and did the work in order to make sure that everything went off smoothly and the other members of my club had fun and learned something. At the same time, I was working hard in school not just because I like knowing stuff (which is still true) but because I had a specific and imminent goal, university admissions, on my mind. At crunch times, like decision day for MIT or a competition for one of my clubs, this crystal clear purpose could be stressful — but mostly it was hugely satisfying. Some of my strongest memories from high school, alongside staying up late talking with my best friends, are going to bed thinking back over my day and knowing, I did a good job today. I advanced my purpose. 

Well. Now I’m here. I got in, and I fulfilled my responsibilities, and my “purposes” have faded away. And I’m left thinking, what now?

I think of the self I am today as having come into existence during those first years of high school, and so I can’t really remember a time when these external goals weren’t there and I was just facing myself in an empty room. I still have interests and wants, but after all this time feeling like I had some greater purpose… it feels so overwhelmingly selfish to do nothing but pursue what I love. I know, it sounds weird.

I’m learning a ton about the practical side of adulthood, even just in these past few months,02 My cooking knowledge has SKYROCKETED. I'll post about that eventually :D and I know there’s a lot more left to learn, but I’ve also been thinking about the abstract side of things. As an adult, I will no longer rely on other people for my most basic needs, like housing or nutrition, but I will still be part of the social contract that all of us contribute to, and ultimately, each of us relies upon society to continue to survive. Is it my duty to give back in some way? I was big on duty in high school, like my duty to the younger kids who looked up to me and who I’d agreed to help when I took on my positions. Do I have a duty to the wider world — and if I do, what is it?

Do I fulfill my duty simply by learning, and having fun, and then going out and getting a job and living my life and dying? I can hear my mom in the back of my head saying yes, of course! but part of me just isn’t convinced. Here I am, and I go to MIT; I have the opportunity before me to learn an incredible number of things, and perhaps to grow into an incredible number of people — but I can only pick one, or a few. How do I choose?

The more I think about it, the more I feel the need to learn something that can help me give back, to work and to live with a goal, to plan for a job in which I can help other people. But this purpose is so new to me, and I don’t yet know how to square it with the rest of what I like to do. And moreover, the realization is one that has left me more unsure overall: I thought I knew what made me tick, and now I’m here, and walking slowly through the Infinite at 10 pm feeling unsettled and questioning why, and I’m realizing that my self of a year ago could not have known this would happen. With each new experience I encounter, now, I feel unable to predict how I will respond, as if once my brain has surprised me the first time, I never know what it will do again.

I used to feel that to myself, at least, I was a predictable person, but now I think that that was because I only ever did predictable things — for the last couple years of high school, I stayed quite comfortably in my niche. Here, at MIT, I feel I have lost the ability to predict what I will realize I enjoy, what I will realize I want to do, what I will realize I want to do for my whole life. I know myself, but I no longer really know myself. Like if I reached out in the dark of my mind, I don’t know anymore what my hand would hit; I miss being able to walk through the house of myself in pure darkness and never miss a step.

It’s hard to feel this way and not know the answers, while at the same time feeling that my window to figure it out is slipping away. But I think there’s nothing I can do except keep walking the Infinite, keep thinking about this and talking about it (with my awesome friends who hear me out through each micro-realization), and try to take classes and do things, in general, that I think will propel me in the right direction; I guess that’s all we can ever really do.

  1. 1) your academic advisor will show you; 2) yes — go to the closet and get another roll and it will pop right into the holder; 3) go out through building 14 and cross the dot back to text
  2. My cooking knowledge has SKYROCKETED. I'll post about that eventually :D back to text