I’ve been reading a lot of slow, contemplative writing recently, which is the kind of writing that always makes me want to write my own blog post of that nature. Frankly, I’ve been overdue for such a post, both in the sense that I haven’t appeared on the admissions blogs for a while, and in the sense that I haven’t really been engaging in self-reflection at all this summer. Usually, when things go wrong—and things have been going wrong—I try my best to sit down, contemplate, and then write until I have arrived upon the actions I need to take to put my life back together again. This summer, however, I have been putting off responsible behavior, ignoring life’s great questions, and, instead of getting back to the people I need to get back to01 with deep apologies to everybody who I have left on read this summer; I promise I'll get back to you eventually. or working on the side-projects I need to work on, I’ve been going out into the city and wandering, enjoying the mere pleasures of life, and scarcely sparing a thought for all the woes which continue to sit in the back of my mind, accruing interest.
Time, however, ticks incessantly, and it is now August, meaning that, in just two short weeks, I will be back to campus for REX, and then the semester—my last undergraduate fall semester—will begin, leaving me no time for self-reflection or recovery. So, I decided that I needed to write, or essayer, as it were,02 the french <em>essayer</em> means 'to try,' or 'to attempt', and is the root of the english word 'essay'; or, as my academic advisor once told me: writing an essay is a process of 'trying' a variety of different thoughts and expressions of them before eventually concluding at the truth, which is why, often, when writing an essay, you have to write a first draft before you realize what you were even trying to say in the first place. my way through some of the thoughts and feelings that had plagued me throughout the previous semester, and which I presumed continued to lay dormant somewhere in the back of my mind. When I finally sat down and began writing, however, I looked into my internal state, and I found…calm. My troubles hadn’t disappeared—the same uncertainties remained—but they somehow seemed smaller, as if I had left behind a messy room and come back only to realize that the room I had been looking at was one in an otherwise placid dollhouse.
Unconvinced by my first, cursory investigation, I did a little more surveying of the soul, looking for some hint of rain or thunder, but my overwhelming sense was that everything was fine. Now, “everything is fine” sounds unremarkable, but, to me, it was this completely new feeling. I don’t remember the last time I felt like everything was fine. For the past few years, my emotional state has almost always been fields of mild but bearable stress, punctuated by periods of trash fire or extreme joy. It felt like I had ascended to some inexplicable fifth level of Zen,03 which is definitely not a real thing in any religious tradition, but bear with me. where everything was just okay, and that was cool, actually.
This realization was extremely surprising. I had made the explicit choice to aim at pleasure over happiness this summer; making decisions which brought me short-term joy, like buying tickets to see every musical in town on my own,04 I've seen five musicals this summer, I think, and am planning to see at least one more rather than thinking about a sort of long-term, sustainable happiness or Aristotelian eudaimonia. I have mostly eschewed company, only occasionally hanging out with a small group of other interns I’ve met via a mutual friend, and most days after work, I just go home and don’t leave my room until it’s time to go back to work the next morning. Yet, this sense of fine-ness seems to be exactly that idea of happiness. It’s like I’ve been walking randomly through a forest, having ditched my GPS five miles back out of frustration, and suddenly I’ve found that I’ve reached the top of the mountain despite making no real effort to climb it.
So, what happened? What has changed?
When I think about this question, the only answer I can think of is that, well, I have changed.
I’ve been living in Seattle this summer, where I’m doing an internship at a software company. I was initially very hesitant about the move; after all, I’ve been in Boston almost continuously since August 2020, and I knew that there would be difficult times ahead this summer, so I was worried that with all this turbulence, I might just withdraw into myself with nobody around to support me. I ended up choosing to do the internship anyways, and so I decided I would need a guideline, something to keep me from hermitting all summer and actually go out and explore the city and “live a little.”
The rule I ended up setting for myself was that I had to “choose to say yes to things I would usually say no to”; intern events, group dinners, sports games, so on and so forth. I was not allowed to sit in my room and mope over the weekend; I had to have plans to do something, to explore some new part of the city or attend some new event. I reminded myself constantly that nobody here knows me, and so I could act however I wanted, do whatever I wanted,05 I have been chronically unable to internalize the advice that <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spotlight_effect">nobody cares as much about what you are doing or that you are trying new things than you</a>, which is always helpful to remember, but somehow the <em>guaranteed </em>lack of impact here made it much easier to remember. and at the end of the twelve weeks I could go home and nobody would be any the wiser.
And so I did just that—I went to my first concert,06 my sister will never forgive me for the crime of me going to a Shawn Mendes concert without her attended my first Pride, wandered into random art galleries, toured the arboretum; I went to one soccer game, and then another, and I even ended up visiting Vancouver for a weekend, mostly on a whim.07 another blog post about this and other adventures will be coming And, as the weeks trickled by, I began to notice little changes in myself, until I suddenly felt like I was becoming a whole other person. I began noticing that I was talking to strangers more often, and that I was actually really beginning to enjoy attending soccer games and cheering for the Seattle Sounders.08 yeah, yeah, MLS is bad, sue me. I'm enjoying it. Bit by bit, I was somehow becoming different, just by virtue of choosing to be a little reckless and merely enjoy living and of being in a completely different location, away from the stress of MIT.
This feeling of change has only accelerated with the weeks, and I am now flying through new versions of me that nobody needs to know, and it is not so bad. I drive myself to work every day. I have started reading again with the explicit goal of getting better at writing,09 I can't really fit this in the post, so here's a footnote. For the past year or so, my strong belief has been that the best way to get good at writing is the act of writing. I started reading again this summer, for the sake of doing so, and simultaneously started listening to more poetry as well, and felt this instantaneous change in my writing, and so I am back on the 'reading is very important' train. and I can see my writing style change with each new author.10 in other words, if the sentences in this post are too long, blame Marcel Proust. I talk to myself unabashedly as I walk around downtown Seattle and make horrible inside jokes to nobody at all, and I catch myself in the mirror in the morning and I smile. I remember when I was growing up that the voices in my head always used to be questioning, that I would go back and forth with them and we’d make a game plan about how to approach a situation. What if this went wrong? “Well, I can solve that problem in this other way.” And, if that doesn’t work? This summer, the one voice I still converse with has become a friendlier one, although I can still summon the anxious voice when I need to. I feel like I have become friends with myself, and it is nice.
The biggest change that this shifting sand of identity has brought has been a freshly renewed openness to new feelings and experiences. I wrote a poem this summer which included the phrase “If you open yourself to the potential vigorousness of feeling,” which seems to me to be the most important choice of all. You have to find a way to let go of the fear of trying new things or of mild disappointment; you have to choose to accept the possibility that you might feel something or that you might find joy in something you did not expect. This acceptance has been the shared thread between all of my newfound pleasures; letting the feelings wash over me as I look at a piece of art, or cheer at a soccer game, or sit in a park and read, looking up on occasion to observe the skyline. I have a new sense that the thing which defines living is feeling, and so I am doing my best to feel, and to care, and to have it all add up at the end of the day. To summarize, I have fooled myself into feeling more, and have found myself all the better for it, and isn’t that wonderful?
Between this changing self and this newfound willingness to merely feel, even the most difficult question in life—what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?—seems to have a simple answer. I want to live. I want to feel. I’ve never felt an answer so clearly before. Sure, the question of “what is your plan after graduation?” is a concrete one which requires deep thought,11 I am thinking about — wait for it — graduate school. as is the question of “what is your ultimate goal in life?”,12 ideal is 'house-spouse who writes poetry part-time', but i'll settle for working on interesting problems in interesting domains. but the overwhelming sense is that my obligation is first to live and to care about living.
This summer, I’ve been running a small poetry workshop, in the style of some of the classes here at MIT. Every Sunday, a group of us meet over Zoom. Everybody brings one poem, and we go around, first reading the poem aloud and then discussing it. For this past week, I wrote this poem. It’s not my best work, and I’m not particularly attached to it, but there is a quality within which captures this sentiment better than paragraphs of text can:
i want to catch trains with you on unplanned trips,
to catch bubbles on foreign streets,
to splash in the ocean in khaki shorts, backpacks holding all of our life’s work,
to wander half-certain into art galleries and to ask “how does that make you feel?” at inopportune times;
i want to find our soul returned to us in the bottom of a cup of tea,
to find myself lost in the vicissitudes of our lives,
battered back and forth by waves of people,
holding on to each other for dear life, as if it were the last moment in our lives—
And, so, having answered one of life’s biggest questions, perhaps it is ultimately unsurprising that I feel completely fine. The changes in myself that I have felt over the past few months are simultaneously minuscule and tremendous; they can only be seen in these tiny changes in behavior, and yet they have radically shifted my perspective, and, by proxy, my sense of place. To be honest, I am not sure if it is possible to precisely explain to you how I have gotten here—each of us must find our own routes to peace, I think—but I am glad to have arrived at this waypoint. It will be alright.
I am about to return to MIT, and I am nervous that some of this progress will evaporate again as I return to the world of the living. I am once again burdened with responsibility and eyeing a classload too large to handle. For the first time in my life, however, I am unafraid of what comes next, both in short term of the semester and in the long term of post-graduation. I cannot help but feel that as long as I keep myself open to the vigorousness of feeling, and do my best to manage whatever else lies on my plate, it will be a very palatable lifetime. Much of this feeling, of course, is a result of the luck I have had to stumble into MIT and then into these internships and experiences, and I have, on occasion, felt guilty that I should feel so secure in a world so riddled with insecurity. Yet, I have come to the conclusion that everyone deserves a world in which they can be happy—and that believing this does not preclude, and, in fact, may require, a belief that I should be allowed to fight for my own happiness. In the meantime, as long as we continue to care for one another, perhaps it really will be okay.
There may come a time when I no longer believe the particular shade of optimism13 I want to take the opportunity here to distinguish my optimism from naiveté; I have been cynical and pessimistic in the past, and that has only faded with age, which is weird, but which I have appreciated. that I have expressed in this post. The fleeting and transitory self which I have inhabited this summer will fade away just as all the other selves have. Yet, at this very particular juncture in my life, I have found myself happy—not just pleased, but happy—for what is perhaps the first time, and hopefully not the last, and everything is completely fine, and maybe that is okay.
- with deep apologies to everybody who I have left on read this summer; I promise I'll get back to you eventually. back to text ↑
- the french essayer means 'to try,' or 'to attempt', and is the root of the english word 'essay'; or, as my academic advisor once told me: writing an essay is a process of 'trying' a variety of different thoughts and expressions of them before eventually concluding at the truth, which is why, often, when writing an essay, you have to write a first draft before you realize what you were even trying to say in the first place. back to text ↑
- which is definitely not a real thing in any religious tradition, but bear with me. back to text ↑
- I've seen five musicals this summer, I think, and am planning to see at least one more back to text ↑
- I have been chronically unable to internalize the advice that nobody cares as much about what you are doing or that you are trying new things than you, which is always helpful to remember, but somehow the guaranteed lack of impact here made it much easier to remember. back to text ↑
- my sister will never forgive me for the crime of me going to a Shawn Mendes concert without her back to text ↑
- another blog post about this and other adventures will be coming back to text ↑
- yeah, yeah, MLS is bad, sue me. I'm enjoying it. back to text ↑
- I can't really fit this in the post, so here's a footnote. For the past year or so, my strong belief has been that the best way to get good at writing is the act of writing. I started reading again this summer, for the sake of doing so, and simultaneously started listening to more poetry as well, and felt this instantaneous change in my writing, and so I am back on the 'reading is very important' train. back to text ↑
- in other words, if the sentences in this post are too long, blame Marcel Proust. back to text ↑
- I am thinking about — wait for it — graduate school. back to text ↑
- ideal is 'house-spouse who writes poetry part-time', but i'll settle for working on interesting problems in interesting domains. back to text ↑
- I want to take the opportunity here to distinguish my optimism from naiveté; I have been cynical and pessimistic in the past, and that has only faded with age, which is weird, but which I have appreciated. back to text ↑