Understanding Via Ambiguity

“What is the meaning of life?” is obviously the most cliché philosophical question you could ask.

To rehash for the umpteenth time what the existentialists said, life has no meaning if you aren’t religious. A lot of people turn to religion in order to imbue meaning into life as part of some bigger plan by God, which Sartre scorned as defeatist.

The next biggest cliché is that if life has no meaning, you have to create your own meaning. Sartre called this l’engagement. Camus took it a step further and suggested that the best sort of engagement is one that derives meaning from creating meaning for others. In other words, being a humanist as a hobby.

The logic seems sound enough, if not a little cruel. The purpose of life is to self-impose a purpose of helping others create a purpose out of something meaningless. It’s kind of a vicious cycle.

Yet perhaps the existentialists and the religious alike were both wrong. Maybe it’s not a dualistic “to be or not to be” type of question. There is and never will be an answer to the question, “What is the meaning of life?” The only answer with which we can content ourselves is that we do not know.

We have to be okay with unanswered questions. Even Hamlet’s question was answered with “the rest is silence.” Life is not a math problem or essay graded by your professor. Ambiguity is uncomfortable, but once we realize that there is no definitive answer, maybe we really can choose the response we want.

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Changing the Road Signs: Adulthood, Women’s Roles, and Resilience in “You’re Aging Well”

Listen to this song on Youtube.

When I was a little girl, my mother used to always keep a batch of CD albums in the glove compartment of her Honda minivan. She’d play them on repeat whenever she drove us to playdates or appointments. Nearly every day, I’d hear “You’re Aging Well” by Dar Williams. At 7 years old, I didn’t quite grasp the meaning behind the lyrics. At 20 going on 21, I can now start to appreciate its message.

First released on her album The Honesty Room in 1993, this song deals with the process of maturing, especially for women, in a contradictory modern world. It also celebrates her relationship with mentor Joan Baez, who served as a primary source of encouragement in both her professional and personal life. The two recorded a duet version as well.

The song begins with a lament: “Why is that as we grow older and stronger the road signs point us adrift?” She declares that she will repaint the road signs, defying the paths society ushers us down if they are to leave us continually doubting – “You never can win. Watch your back. Where’s your husband?”

These lines encapsulate some of the contradictory issues that women face. We should be feminist, but can’t be too feminist for the sake of a relationship. Our friends might stab us in the back. We should have significant others, but we need to keep an eye on them. And if only our “lower calf, upper arm were half what they are.” Yet still we are tempted believe that these will lead to a “road of enchantment.”

These kinds of narratives rampant in our culture leave us “with a collection of sticks,” with which to “fight back the hundreds of voices.” We become cynical, absurd – well aware we can only eat “the poisonous apple… not a story we are meant to survive.”

But Williams offers us not just hope, but the promise of companionship in a world that seems indifferent. The refrain of the song is “I’m so glad you finally made it here. You thought nobody cared, but we did, we could tell.” With age, we discover that with suffering comes empathy and understanding. Above all, while hardships can seem abnormal in a world where everyone is walking the road of enchantment, in fact, making it through to where we are today is a sign that we are maturing just as we should be.

It is the the final verses that I feel the most keenly. Sometimes, the “language that keeps us alive” that we’ve been searching for on this endless, misguided roadmap is given to us by someone unexpected or found in unexpected places. And when we’re lost, we’re frustrated. But some things can only be achieved through simply living life as it is, and the fact that we’re right where we are now is a sign that we are, indeed, aging well.

I’m so glad that you finally made it here

With the things you know now, that only time could tell

Looking back, seeing far, landing right where we are

And oh, you’re aging, and I am aging.

Oh, aren’t we aging well?

How To Actually Have A Better Year: On Toxic Relationships

One thing I’ve seen people advocate this past month is dropping toxic friendships from your life. I agree, but I also think that removing bad doesn’t necessarily guarantee the addition of good. Instead of simply ridding ourselves of what hurts us, we need to also become the kind of person worth keeping. We need to set the example of what is good.

Security, reciprocal emotional responsibility, and clear communication are qualities we often take for-granted. But people worth keeping exhibit these, and more.

We all basically understand that toxic people leave you emotionally drained, devalued, and/or feeling stifled in your attempts at communication. We shouldn’t dehumanize or vilify them, though – they are insecure people who deserve compassion. But they lack responsibility of both their own emotions and those of others. They may believe that admitting their own shortcomings, fears – thereby being vulnerable – is a weakness. Or they may source their own value in others’ esteem and project.

In contrast, people worth keeping are those with whom you can have conversations about everything from the weather to your wildest dreams. They know that everyone has faults – themselves and you – but know that everyone is trying their best. They know that everyone has just as many if not more strengths. When something goes wrong, they let you know while still taking account of the fact that every story has two sides. When something goes right, they tell you, encouraging you, building you up.

To simplify, in a harmonious relationship, communication is earnest and reciprocal, ambitions and vulnerabilities are validated, and both individuals are responsible.

Getting rid of toxicity won’t guarantee that the rest of our relationships will be fulfilling. We all want people who build us up, make us excited to reach for our goals, and make us feel safe. But to find these kinds of relationships, we need to be those kinds of people too. In 2019, we need to all become people who communicate respectfully with others, are strong enough to be vulnerable, and responsible enough to nurture truly positive relationships.

The Imperativeness of Being Earnest

To be honest, honesty is overrated. Earnestness, on the other hand, is extremely undervalued.

Who hasn’t before heard (if not said) the passive-aggressive preface, “Just being honest?” Firstly, honesty is not an excuse to be an asshole. Honesty should only be used where an outsider perspective that conflicts with another’s interpretation of events is constructive, whether that be to truly help someone for their own benefit or to defend yourself if your rights are violated.

Secondly, honesty is an abstract notion. Honesty, according to Merriam Webster, is “adherence to the facts.” But when we preface a subjective statement with “just being honest,” we are not honestly adhering to the correct definition. Who is to say that my interpretation of reality is a fact? The only fact in that statement would be the fact that you think something different.

Finally, people know that being “honest” can often provoke others. They sometimes thus use honesty as a pretext for inaction, likely also blaming the other party for not permitting them to be honest, which brings me to my next point.

We seem to confuse honesty of words with something virtuous. Sticking to the “facts” is impossible. But being sincere is not.

It is an age old adage that “actions speak louder than words.” Honesty is certainly not always the best option, but earnestness usually is. If you truly, honestly care about someone, it isn’t so much the content of your words that will demonstrate it as it is your actions. Listening to people. Reaching out to them. Gestures that show you want to understand and care for them. Is this always completely possible? Of course not. But it is indeed the thought that counts, and more.

What Makes A “Good” Study Abroad Program

For my French study abroad semester, orientation was 2 weeks long and is finally nearing its end. It’s been an exhausting time, though nowhere near as intense as the orientation in Yokoze, Japan for the fall. Comparing the two, as well as my internship program in Mongolia, brings about some interesting reflections about what constitutes a “good” study abroad program. Namely, I feel that integration into the community for students is key to developing a truly fulfilling experience.

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You Saw Me In The Mirror

Semi-fictional piece on friendships that build and break and haunt you with regret.

Once upon a time, I thought I had a best friend. As I’ve grown older my mind has gotten weaker, and I’ve allowed myself to forget the location of every wrinkle on her face and the exact pitch of her voice when she asks a question. But even though my memory is no longer pristine, I still can trace the bridge of her nose, and I still hear echoes of her voice.

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“Heureux qui, comme Ulysse…”

This was a creative nonfiction piece I wrote first year of college. It’s about homesickness and searching for a place of belonging, a theme still relevant to me today. It describes the narrator’s journey throughout the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, MA.

Sunlight dangled from the ceiling windows. The air smelled of earth and dust, and the voices of onlookers echoed through the room. I placed my hands on the stone parapet and leaned forward. Was this what they called a home?

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Time As God

Can time be considered a religion? The deification of time in the modern world. 

Part of what makes any museum but especially the British Museum so well-loved is how it provides an easily accessible insight into cultural values. It should be an artfully chosen distillation of a community of the past, combining history, art, mathematics, and the physical being into one. Visiting the British Museum led me to realize exactly how much value modern Western cultures tend to place on time to the extent that it is arguably deified. The museum has curated a Clocks exhibition, where gold, silver, and every other type of precious metal adorn intricately designed clocks. They do not always have a practical use, admittedly, but then again, is a tabernacle really “practical” if you take faith out of it?

Like churches, mosques, and temples, clocks are constructed by the human hand with startling detail and care. Hours of toil go into crafting an elaborate exterior of a machine that very possibly is not even accurate, but which we believe has vital use to our daily lives because of how much we rely on time to keep our schedules in order. Religious edifices are beautiful because (1) people want to properly represent the perceived inherent value of the thing they are worshipping and (2) people know that viewing something as art will deter its destruction by rival hands. Similarly, the exteriors of these clocks convey the magnitude of worship individuals bestow on time – a golden ship, for example, evokes the idea of time as the ocean that we humans navigate on an endless passage. And who would, then, dare destroy the awe-inspiring representation before them, not just an image of human belief but a reminder of human potential for creating beauty?

Furthermore, like religion, for some people time can become a haunting, obsessive concept. What was once simply a guiding measure consumes them. Using religion as an excuse for mistreatment or even abuse of others is equivalent to justifying extreme hedonism with the idea of “our lives being short.” And just like how some people continuously impose their religious beliefs on others, some people impose their schedules on others to the extent that it becomes difficult to interact with them. “I have to make this appointment at exactly 12 pm. If I am five minutes late, then it is the end of the world.”

Time even arguably can perform the function of spiritual release. Religion brings release in that it affirms human potential but equally affirms insignificance in the eyes of a greater scheme of things. Time affirms human potential in the simplest of platitudes – “We’ve got time.” And yet, it denies it in every other facet, whether it be the incertitude of the future or the demonstration of individual insignificance in the grand scheme of eternity.
The thing I find above all intriguing, however, is that just like any religion, time is both divisive and unifying. It breaks us apart into the past and future but holds us to the present. For Westernized cultures, even in the present it carves up the world into zones but brings us back together in the fact that we are so attentive to a single numerical reading.
It is also important to note that I have been primarily describing the Western, “monochronic” view as presented in the British Museum. As there are branches within religions, there is also another “polychronic” view of time practiced by some southern European, Latin American, African, and Asian civilizations, where they prioritize experience over order. However, the presence of clocks throughout the histories of these civilizations – ranging from beautifully painted sundials, water clocks, and modern clocks alike – proves that time has always been a governing force as well throughout polychronic individual’s lives. Some may experience it differently, but it can’t be denied that everyone experiences time. [2]

Perhaps time is a hidden religion, and the only universal one at that. No one, regardless of ethnicity or personal beliefs, denies that time is ticking. Perception of time may vary slightly from culture to culture or even individual to individual, but we are all bound together by the fact that we all experience it in the first place.
[1] Featured image from https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rolling_ball_clock_in_the_British_Museum.jpg

[2] http://www.exactlywhatistime.com/other-aspects-of-time/time-in-different-cultures/

In Response To “Barking Up The Wrong Tree”

I’m not saying that it’s entirely wrong but this article seems to be pointing out something that a.) should be obvious and b.) leads to the false conclusion that to be the valedictorian means automatically that you’re a robotic, herd-loving pawn of “the system.” It’s true – valedictorians are not likely to be particularly successful. But that’s true of any individual within a large population. Including you.
The US has something like 25,000 public high schools, and that doesn’t count the private schools. You therefore have something like 25,000 valedictorians. Do you really expect that all 25,000 are going to be the next Gandhi? And given that the majority of humans – valedictorians or not – are very schedule and rule-oriented, do you really take this as surprising? Valedictorian is a title. It doesn’t make the person who received the title any more or less human. Furthermore, this article seems to state that the edgy rebels are the ones who go far. That may be the case sometimes, but it’s not because gamblers have some sort of advantage in terms of their luck. In reality the people who go far do so because of perseverance, not because of a title they did or did not achieve in an early, relatively minor point in their life. There is no real, truly quantifiable indicator of success at this point.
Also, just to refute that BS about standardized tests being a better indicator of IQ:  “How I Learned To Take the SAT Like A Rich Kid”  reveals that many if not most of the highest scorers belong to the upper rungs of society because they can afford extensive test preparation.
I fully admit that following the rules is indeed a major issue – see the book Excellent Sheep by William Deresiewicz. But contrary to what the article seems to imply, this phenomenon is not limited to valedictorians, nor does it mean the chances of valedictorians changing or impressing the world is especially lower simply because they have obtained such a title. It is, rather, a tragic phenomenon that applies to us all, straight-A student or not: that we, as humans, have a tendency to conform to the rules and do nothing, forsaking our ideals for comfort and never truly making our mark on the world.