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sharp and soft by Vincent H. '23

featuring: my favorite naruto moment

in my favorite naruto scene, a samurai and a ninja charge at each other. everyone expects their blades to collide in midair, but instead, this is the result:

naruto swordsmen charging at each other

the samurai’s sword (left) slashes straight through the ninja’s sword (right) and breaks it in half. then the samurai says something along the lines of: people are their blades! bluntness will not last. if your blade was too dull, that is because you yourself were too dull. he goes on to talk about how people who stay true to their beliefs continue refining themselves and remain sharp, while people who allow themselves to drift into nihilism lose their edge

it shouldn’t come as a surprise that all my favorite battles are mental ones. for instance, the fights in the matrix are about breaking through self-doubt and illusion, the struggle in the bhagavad gita is about conviction and dedication of the self, and this naruto battle… well, i suppose you can interpret it as a literal fight with swords if you want, but everybody knows that sharp swords don’t actually cut through dull ones. i think this scene makes more sense when viewed as a metaphorical struggle against dullness. by default our minds, skills, and resolve all become dull over time, and it is only through constant commitment to some kind of value or purpose that we can keep ourselves sharp

around a year ago my friend asked me: do you think you’re a spiky person or a soft person? they clarified that spiky people tended to interact with others in a logical and utilitarian manner, whereas soft people paid more attention to others’ feelings and to cultivating relationships, and then they said that it was usually easy to classify someone as spiky or soft but they were having trouble doing so with me because i seemed to have many elements of both. i explained that i was extremely spiky in high school and had been transitioning to a soft person throughout college, and that was probably the source of the confusion

at the time i thought going from spiky to soft also meant going from sharp to dull – after all, they seemed correlated, and the denotations of the words matched up very well (this is one of the problems with inventing new meanings for words: you end up with associations between concepts which sound reasonable but don’t actually make any sense. be careful about the language you create for yourself). i assumed that by becoming softer and gentler and embracing self-love and acceptance, i was also committing to losing sharpness and conviction and willpower, and i didn’t even notice this was happening because i assumed it was all part of the process

i think i have become quite dull over the past year. i am less fit, more prone to distraction, less disciplined, more afraid of commitment, and so on; i am trying to find my way again, and doing so very slowly. occasionally i will dive into a contest math problem just to practice thinking and working with the same level of desperation i had back in high school. i am disappointed in myself for slipping, and also a little sad that none of my friends told me what was happening, though i know it’s not their job to. perhaps they didn’t notice, or perhaps they didn’t tell me out of politeness (hi friends! if this is the case, please let me know next time; i respond best to direct feedback)

it is irresponsible to push yourself to the brink of depression, to pump yourself full of anger and resentment and jealousy and to fuel the achievement of your dreams through negativity. i learned that last year and it is a major reason for why i decided to pursue softness. but in becoming dull i have learned this too: it is also irresponsible to lose sight of who you want to be, to stop pushing yourself and to lower your standards until you are no longer capable of pursuing your dreams

everyone knows that deliberately manufacturing dissatisfaction and angst is a clear violation of self-care. less people realize that dulling and regressing and losing conviction will also breed dissatisfaction and angst once you realize how far you’ve fallen and regret what could’ve been, and therefore that too cannot count as self-care

so i was once sharp and spiky, and then i became dull and soft, and now i am looking to become sharp and soft. i believe i can do so, and i am not worried about becoming spiky again in my pursuit of sharpness – i think my spikiness came from having unsustainable sources of motivation, but nowadays my main motivation is achieving what i want rather than fear of failure, and that makes a big difference

last month i was at a house party and for some reason everyone else wanted to relocate to the roof. the only way there was through a ladder without any kind of guardrail or fall protection, which i really really didn’t want to take because i am scared of heights. i was shaking and terrified the entire way up, but i climbed the ladder anyway, because my friend was watching and i felt safer and freer around them – i felt like i could inexplicably do more than i usually could, simply because they were there. much later i realized this is what it means to be sharp and soft, and now i wonder: how can i support and motivate myself in the same way my friend was able to?