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MIT blogger CJ Q. '23

It’s cool to care by CJ Q. '23

but maybe care a little less

One. In October 2017, I left home and lived on my own for several months. It was my first time living alone, actually alone, without anyone else. I rented out a small room in some building, I learned how to feed myself, I worked, I went to school.

There was one day, that November, a little less than a month into living alone, that I woke up at five in the morning with a bad headache. A splitting one, one that felt like someone driving a flathead screwdriver between my eyebrows. I didn’t get up. I closed my eyes, waiting for the pain to go away.

An hour later, I woke up, and the pain was still there. I felt hot. I held my hand against my neck, and felt warmth radiating through my palm. I would’ve grabbed a thermometer, the one that my mom kept behind the bedroom door, but I didn’t have that thermometer. I didn’t have a thermometer.

I tugged my blanket closer, and closed my eyes again. No rest. I slowly got up, steadying myself against a table. I packed my things. It’s not as if I could stay in bed, tell my mom I feel sick and wouldn’t go to school today, and have someone cook lunch and dinner for me. No one knew that I was here.

Backpack ready, I walked outside, and got on a jeep. Early-morning smoke on the highway filled my nostrils. I fished for some coins in my wallet and handed the fare to the driver. Thirty minutes later, I was at school, thirty minutes early.

I sat down. My neck hurt. People start arriving. My back hurt. First period started. My lips felt dry. My head started hurting again. I slept through first period, second period. Lunch came, and I stood up, and my head felt worse. With each step the earth quaked beneath.

A classmate took me to the clinic after lunch. It was closed, but we managed to get someone to fill in for the clinician. I was given some paracetamol and some noodles.

Two. Two months later, I was sitting in a café after eating dinner, grading homework on my laptop for my job. Suddenly, I felt like I was slowly falling sideways. The world started rotating clockwise, ceaselessly, yet never making it all the way around. My place was a five-minute walk away, but I doubted I could make the trip alone.

I texted a friend to ask for help. I stood up, keeping my head as still as possible. It took a minute to turn around. I went to the restroom and sat on the toilet. In front of me, next to the door, was a featureless white wall. The wall kept getting closer and closer, yet never reaching me. Fifteen minutes later, I stood up and left to see my friend waiting for me at my table. He ordered some more food, and asked if I wanted to eat.

I did. I ate.

Mahirap mabuhay mag-isa,” I told him. “Walang mag-aalaga sa’yo.

Living alone is hard. There’s no one to take care of you.

Hindi naman. Ibig sabihin ikaw dapat ang mag-aalaga sa sarili mo,” he replied.

Not quite. It means you’re supposed to take care of yourself.

After dinner, he packed my things and we stood up. I turned towards the door quickly. I faltered. He grasped both of my shoulders. We walked out the café and down the street. Every turn along the way, he’d wait, ten seconds, thirty seconds, for me to slowly turn myself around. He guided me with his hands down a block. Three slow staircases later, I was in my room.

I slept, and I slept. The next morning I woke up. I learned my lesson from last time, so I had noodles ready. I slept some more. Lunch came. I felt a little better. I ate out, bought some noodles, crackers, more groceries. I felt older.

Three. On my last night in the Philippines, a cool Thursday night in August 2019, a friend and I were sitting in the middle of a shopping mall. It was two in the morning, and there was no one around but us. We lied down and played some music. In the distance, we counted seven skyscrapers, felt the sides of the mall towering over our heads, saw the leaves of the trees above us.

I played music from my phone, and we laughed at how bad the speakers were. We talked and we talked and we talked, and then it hit me that I would be leaving. That I was going to leave, and that I wouldn’t be back for a long time, and that we wouldn’t have a night like this in a long time, if ever again. That I spent my gap year making relationships with people, relationships that felt like they were out of convenience rather than anything deeper, that I was friends with people who felt like they didn’t care about me.

Two hours later, we got up, and got in his car, and he drove me to the airport. As he rolled up beside the lobby, I was suddenly struck with vertigo. It was the first time I had a bout of vertigo since January the previous year, so it was sudden and unexpected. My hands and arms started to feel numb. My friend walked me to the waiting area and dropped off my things. He wanted to stay with me, but we both knew that he couldn’t.

Four. Mag-ingat ka. Take care of yourself. An important enough of a concept that Tagalog has a single word for it: ingat.

It’s the reminder I tell people I’m concerned about, because I care about them. Care, in the sense that I wouldn’t want to see them in trouble, or harmed, or burnt out.

I care about my friends, and I care about other things too. I care about producing good work, something I’ve always cared about before coming to MIT. I was invested in writing things that other people would enjoy, and share, or at least read. I still am.

Five. In MIT, I learned to care about communities. Right now, I’m the Grandmaster of the Assassins’ Guild, a live-action role-playing group on campus that’s been around for a long time. The Guild had a rough past two years. Live-action is in our name, and as we weren’t on campus, there wasn’t much we could’ve done. I knew that we had to get people excited about the Guild, if I wanted to keep it going.

On the morning of the activities midway, maybe two or three weeks ago, it was the thought of staffing the Guild booth that got me out of bed. The thought that, if I didn’t staff the booth, no one would. I went to the Guild office and got this huge cloth poster and two Nerf guns. I spent the two hours in midway asking people to shoot me with the Nerf guns. It was tiring to give the same spiel every two minutes: we’re the Assassins’ Guild, if you liked shooting me with the Nerf gun, we have an event where we just run around and shoot each other, we have other games, etc., etc. It was exhausting to stand for two hours, to smile and maintain my energy, to get people to sign up.

Through that week, I emailed and I messaged people, trying to get our first game ready by the next weekend. None of us were available the next weekend, so we had to push it another weekend. We got classrooms, we carted crates filled with Nerf guns and bullets, we opened doors and pushed chairs and tables and talked about the rules and stayed for three hours. Lots of people came. That night, a friend and I walked in the rain as we pushed the cart back to the student center, to return everything to the Guild office.

I care about Tech Squares, a square dancing group that meets every Tuesday night. I reserved rooms, I sent emails, I had meetings with staff about what we could and couldn’t do. We’re dancing again, every Tuesday night. We don’t have as many people as we usually do, as only MIT students and staff could participate. But we had enough for a class, and we had enough people excited about coming each week.

And the thing about caring is that the Guild and Squares are both in the back of my mind, constantly. Any time I hear about something that relates to student organizations, I have to think about how it impacts both of them. I worry about our week-to-week, and whether we’ll have enough people to do our events. I worry about what will happen if no one’s interested in doing the things needed to keep these clubs afloat once I leave.

Six. When it comes to caring about what happens when I’m gone, the community I’m most worried about is Floorpi. With plans for East Campus to get renovated next summer, Floorpi won’t physically exist as a living group for a while. By the time people move into East Campus post-renovation, I will no longer be around as an undergrad.

As a hall chair, everything I do for Floorpi is cast in this light. On one level, I still enjoy being a member of hall and participating in our culture, our events, our traditions. I like being able to hover outside people’s rooms when their doors are open, or going to the lounge and asking people to play board games. I like our weekly events like fruit bowl and tea time. But on another level, I come to these events thinking about the future.

During hall rush, my thoughts were, how do we get people interested not only in Floorpi, but continuing Floorpi? When it came to comm elections, when we elected people to roles for managing events, my thoughts were, how do we get people invested in continuing these traditions? Fruit bowl and tea time happened, and my thoughts were, are people liking this event, enough that they’ll want to continue it when I’m gone?

Seven. When I’m gone. It was first in MIT that I began caring about what would happen when I’m gone. It’s hard for me to describe why this is such an interesting feeling to have, because I’ve never felt this way before. I’ve never felt this way about other people, never as intensely as this. I’ve never cared this much about anything before.

I first read about this feeling in a blog post from Ben K. ’16:

And, as strange as it is to say as such, I realize that as an undergrad I learned to care. This isn’t to say I hadn’t valued anything before – certainly my family was important to me before, for instance – but in some sense which is difficult to describe I learned how to really, deeply care.

Ben talks about caring for a community, and thinking about what’ll happen to those communities once he leaves. I didn’t understand it, at first, when I read it a year ago, but now I have a better idea of what that feeling is like.

He captures why I find this feeling so weird: why should I care so much about what will happen to these communities when I’m gone, when I won’t be a part of them? Who am I to make sure that these communities match whatever vision I had for them, as opposed to whoever ends up in them a year, two years, five years from now? I won’t be directly interacting or benefiting from these communities once I’m gone, but I still care. I still really, really care.

To someone who’s never felt something similar before, it may be hard to understand. Maybe think of it like this: would you press a button that would sacrifice your life to save the lives of a billion people? And yes, it’s different to care about the lives of others than to care about whether a community continues to exist when you’re gone. But my point was that people care about things when they’re gone, even if they can’t explain why, and even if they don’t know what those things are.

Eight. About a year ago, I wrote:

yet only a year after running away from home did i find myself caught up in imaginary pressures about choosing where to go to college. only months after studying in mit did i find myself caught up in the rat race of wanting an internship without stopping to think about why. i told myself i’d care about academics less this semester, but is it happening? am i really caring less?

It’s interesting to me that I used the word “care” here, in the sense of “care about academics”. More than that, I wrote that I wanted to care less about it. One year later, I can definitively say that I do care less about it.

We tell ourselves, and each other, that we should care more about certain things. But the reality is that we only have a limited amount of care to give in our lives. Caring about something new does not look like this:

chart. "things you care about" vs "how much you care". "new thing" bar labeled in blue to the rightIt looks like this:

the previous chart, but with some of the tops of the bars chopped offTo care about something new, or to care more about something, we’d have to care about something less in exchange. I told myself that I wanted to care less about academics, and implicitly, this meant caring more about some other thing. I think it was just caring more about everything else going on in my life.

The things we care more or less about may not be obvious, because it might not be something we think that we care about actively. It’s easy to say “I’ll care less about going to meetings every Tuesday night in exchange for caring more about going to Squares every Tuesday night”. In this case, the way that care is exchanged is clear: time traded for time.

But sometimes it’s not as clear. For example, I certainly care about keeping up with my friends and hanging out with them and their general well-being. But it’s not something that I actively think that, “oh, I’d care less about my friends in exchange for caring more about my academics.” For these kinds of things, what “care” looks like is even harder to describe.

Nine. We’ve already gone through the different ways we care about things. We can care about people, and we do that by making sure they are doing well. We can care about academics or communities, and we do that by investing time doing things for them.

A few months ago, I wrote about another thing I wanted to care less about:

[…]there is only so much effort i can pour into the things i am doing. i’m forced to partition myself, to choose how much soul i can put into each commitment. and as much as i want everything i do to be great, or perfect, as much as i want to help make promys an excellent online summer camp, as much as i want to help out with esp’s programs this summer, as much as i want to make my part of gph great, as much as i want to create beautiful blog posts, as much as i want to write math and learn math and write websites and learn stuff, i can’t do it. i can’t do it all.

Here I used the word “want”, in the sense that I “want” to make PROMYS excellent, that I “want” to help with ESP, that I “want” to write things. All of these things are true, but more than that, I cared about these things. I can want to eat something right now, but that doesn’t mean I care that much about it. On the other hand, here, I’m talking how much I care about making something good.

And when earlier, I used the word care to describe how I felt about my studies, I meant the same thing. Caring less did not mean lowering my desire to learn, and it didn’t mean stopping going to classes. It meant that I became fine with not giving my 100% on everything that I did. And here, caring less about my writing meant being fine with not everything I write being a blog post for the ages.

Ten. In the same post that I previously linked, I also wrote that:

it is the unfortunate case that i, like many other people i know, overcommit myself. last summer i hit my ceiling of the amount of things i can work on at once that i care about, and i think i am very near that limit this summer. […] fortunately, i am much less burnt out, largely due to a stronger social support system, because god i love being in macgregor and living with other people again.

By default, my care goes towards myself, and making sure that I, as a person, feel healthy and well. It is with the care that I have left that I use to put time and effort into the other things I care about, whether that’s my friends, my communities, my academics, my writing.

But what happens, in practice, is that the care that goes towards myself ends up going somewhere else. We talk about self-care, because self-care is a real thing. And when you don’t have enough to care for yourself, sometimes it’s enough to get that support from others.

So yes. When you’re alone, it’s not true that no one’s going to take care of you; you have to take care of yourself. But I learned that I never really was alone. Support systems are people who take care of you.

Eleven. I don’t know what advice to give.

For one, I’d bet that the kind of person reading this is more likely than not to care deeply about things. And in that case, I’m reminded of some advice I’ve been given—don’t burn yourself to keep others warm. Take care of yourself, because otherwise, you can’t take care of others.

But also, I want to say that caring about things is great. It’s one of the most important lessons I’ve learned in MIT, that whole concept of caring about things, enough that you care about what happens to them when you’re gone. And this would be in the same vein of advice as finding something you’re passionate about and sticking with it and giving your all.

Instead, maybe the I’ll advice I’ll give is this.

It’s cool to care!

But maybe care a little less.