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MIT student blogger Emad T. '14

Flux and Flow by Emad T. '14

Thermodynamics as therapeutic analogy; or, the longest way I've ever said, "I'm still figuring things out"

I never really liked 5.60, or thermodynamics.

In my senior year, I took the class twice and dropped it twice. It wasn’t just because it had difficult concepts and brutal tests. It represented the final hurdle to being med school ready, the last outstanding class I had to take if I ever wanted to be a doctor — which, at the time, was no longer a settled matter, even with so much time, money, and energy invested in that outcome. Yet sticking with it, however half-heartedly, seemed safer than committing to public health and its (relatively) shakier employment outlook. Medical school was safer, even though I felt I really wanted to go into public health after lots of research, a stint in therapy to maintain my self-esteem and resolve my doubts, and some very deep, extensive introspection. Basically, 5.60 was a hedged bet, and as I hedged, time passed, others grew, and I felt left behind.

But hey, now I know about reactions and dynamic equilibria, I guess?

For those unfamiliar with the concept of dynamic equilibria: even though something, on the microscopic level, may be in constant reaction with other components, or may be constantly degrading and decomposing into its starting reagents, it nevertheless maintains its macroscopic form when at dynamic equilibrium. It’s like a river: though the water passing through it always changes, we never see a river as anything else but a river. Most forward reactions are opposed by a reverse reaction, though it may not necessarily be strong enough to prevent the starting materials from changing into products.

Life has parallels with thermodynamics: everything is in flux, and the forces of progression and regression always exist.

Sometimes, you progress by learning some lessons and using them. Sometimes, you later regress by forgetting what you knew. It happens, but it’s never too late to remember what you forgot and carry it forward.

I thought about this when I read an old post of mine from my freshman year, “Defying That Sinking Feeling.” It was a useful read at a time when I’m still constructing my immediate future — which has, at the moment, promising prospects, but still little that is concrete. In the post, I expanded the MIT-education-as-fire-hose-drinking metaphor by likening my next four years to learning to swim:

You can cling for dear life to the pool’s edge, but the inviting depth of the water – the experiences you’ll end up missing out on – will taunt you until you turn around and dive in. And while there is more pressure the deeper you go, you’ll never know what you can accomplish until you push yourself.

I also found three lessons in my experience, equally applicable both to swimming and to life. First, get comfortable and acclimated; try not to panic. Second, if you struggle and get too tense, you sink — so just float and stay relaxed, but don’t forget to propel yourself along. Third, there’s no need to wear yourself out.

After that post, I’ve gone on to disregard each lesson numerous times. On top of that, I’ve felt as if my post-undergrad life thus far falls short of where I wanted to be, due to the same fear that used to freeze me up around water. As a recovering perfectionist, I’ve burdened my conscience with far lighter faults. Seeing evidence that, in the three years after writing that post, I had gone on to unlearn important lessons and regress and retreat from who I could be…that hurt a lot.

It didn’t help that submitting to that reaction seemed like an unraveling of the resilience and coping mechanisms built up by therapy. Past a certain point, though, it’s pointless to be too hard on yourself, if you know you’re the kind of person that would gladly subject yourself to judgment in lieu of moving on from it. When I sensed the beginning of a spiral of stern judgment, I took a detour and thought about flux and flow. I’d like you to reflect on it if you’ve ever felt the same way.

Let’s say that there’s always progression and regression in life. (Spoiler alert: There is.) What would it mean to the omniscient observer to stand still?

Granted, it could mean that there is literally nothing acting on you to go forward or backward at a particular moment. But that tends not to happen in life. So to me, standing still means something different than actually backsliding. There’s an equal balance between two sides — the will to progress, and the regressive doubts that hold me back — making for zero net movement and change. Giving up entirely would have a different effect. Letting go of the will to progress would mean actively undoing my work, sliding back to where I started, and never looking forward.

Standing still doesn’t always mean giving up or being lost. Sometimes it means holding the line. Sometimes it means getting ready for the next push, the intrinsic or extrinsic force that tips the scales and brings you forward.

Flux is knowing that my identity is larger than both the successes and the setbacks. Flux is knowing that even with those comparatively microscopic changes, I stay the same as a person, just like the end product of a reaction. I’m quintessentially neither any set of failures nor any set of successes, and I’m hardly any more or less deserving of praise or respect even in light of changing fortunes or events.

Flow is knowing what it takes to continue to progress, and knowing the way forward is a jagged line, with a few hairpin turns thrown in for good measure. It’s accepting being carried backward at times while retaining the intention to go forward. I will sometimes forget good lessons and re-make bad decisions. I will also sometimes reaffirm good lessons and make good decisions. The hope is that, on balance, the good outweighs the bad and I stick to the good. Nevertheless, both will occur, and it’s fine if that happens so long as I always try to pursue and embrace the good.

As I neared my graduation, friends both within and outside MIT have often asked what the biggest lesson I’ve learned was. If you understood French and read my last post when the blogs went seriously multilingual / creative / just plain old weird on the internet, you’d know my answer to that question.

It’s persistence. Persistence, and also patience: flux and flow, as much a part of thermodynamics as they are a part of life’s dynamics.