T+N: Meaning of life and stuff

T+N (Then+Now) posts will be past posts from other social media, paragraphs lifted from e-mails, or transcribed print journal entries + metadata with as much context as I can conjure up for the original post + new thoughts + ideally, comment aggregation.

The excerpted paragraph was from a freakishly long (1,833 words, if you’re curious) e-mail to my friend Jessica, dated Oct. 10, 2007. To be fair, the subject of the e-mail was “Boring ramble about my classes,” and I led with: 

Don’t say I didn’t warn you. I have this new theory that I can relate the information from all my classes and fit them into some kind of diagrammatic framework – I don’t know if this is a reflection on the nature of academia to overanalyze into abstraction, or if I’m just desperately searching for meaning or if it’s a vague intersection of both of those, along with me being slightly overloaded with courses right now and trying to neatly package all the information into a manageable general theory of academia. So … that’s the state of mind for this ramble. I was actually going to write a journal entry, but my hand is tired from taking notes, so I thought I’d ramble at you, which is sometimes easier than trying to structure a journal entry, and I guess I could say that I’m keeping you updated on my life. Consider that warning No. 2.

[Anyone see any correlations to this blog?] Additional context: I studied abroad during my third year of college, so I spent August 2006 to August 2007 in Paris. This e-mail was composed in the midst of reverse culture shock and a somewhat clichéd existential crisis, which, for the record, I tried to mitigate by taking five classes and becoming senior staff at my college paper. This paragraph came after a short dissertation about how all of those five classes were related to each other: 

Ooh, why don’t I ramble about other things that I’ve been thinking about (less academic, probably equally boring). I had an interview with SAA yesterday, and they asked me what inspires me. (Response: Uh, in life?) I think I said something about meeting new people and having new experiences, but I didn’t really explain what I meant, about how when I was travelling in Europe and met new people (especially those I met through couchsurfing), I was excited by the possibility of finding connections with complete strangers who are so far away (in terms of physical distance and cultural boundaries) from the life I’m used to and yet are not so different because we inevitably found things to relate to. I think being abroad was, for me, also a process of radicalization, which stemmed partly from an extreme frustration with the decline of the United States in the eyes of the international community and from a sense/fear that our society is in a period of stagnation from which we are afraid to wake up. But, BUT, meeting these people reminded me that there are others out there who care about meeting new people, about trying to find connections with others and trying to establish an international community of concerned, open-minded, aware people. (I think I fluctuate between believing that there is so much possibility in life and a much more depressing polar opposite of frustration and impotence when faced with the sheer magnitude of problems that are affecting our planet and a larger human society.) People! People inspire me. I hope. I think. Oh, when I’m on the frustrated side of the pendulum, I also tend to hate school and fear that academia is a study in how to antiseptically analyze elements of life that are either too far removed from actual problems to have any meaningful impact, or are too immediate to actually confront and are thus only discussed and parsed from the safety of classrooms (e.g. why am I listening to a professor describe parataxis and the ’emblematicity of the subject as creating the ambiguity of its representation’ or a lecture on the utilitarian solution for how to deal with starving children – wouldn’t it be more effective to do something?).

I’m, for now, adapting the point of view that the classroom is a training ground, that I’ll need a degree to get to the place where I can start to have an impact. And on the days when I believe in the power of literature and media as a political vehicle, I hope that a strong background in the arts will somehow prepare me to have some kind of influence or, I don’t know, do something.

So that’s what’s up with me. How are you?

-30- e-mail excerpt

Update: I thought this post was appropriate as I figure out what exactly I’m doing with my life. I applied for a few graduate programs in comparative literature last year, but I only applied for outrageous reach universities in England and Ireland, because I wasn’t sure I wanted to start a PhD program. I found this e-mail relatively recently while searching for something else in my gmail, and while I was somewhat surprised to reread what I had written, it also lends meaning to the work I’ve done over the past couple of years. At The Bruin, I started looking for stories with an obvious human-interest or social-issue related angle, including pitching a column in 2009 that was basically an excuse for me to interview people in-depth about why they cared about the things they cared about. Around the time of this e-mail was also when I started seriously considering the Peace Corps, though I ended up deciding to do an AmeriCorps program in Los Angeles instead, working with students at under-resourced schools. [I want to talk about this decision and how people decide what their role is in communities later, in a post called “Altruism Calculus.” <– That will become a hyperlink.]

I’m still driven by new experiences and meeting new people; doing community-oriented work with 350+ like-minded co-workers over the past two years was the perfect antidote for feeling completely removed from human contact within the ivory towers of academia. I don’t think my commitment to social impact will change, but my mentor brought up an interesting point while we were discussing what I wanted to do next, that it’s possible to work with kids as a volunteer, not just as a job. For some reason, this blew my mind — after pulling 50 to 60 hour work weeks for less than minimum wage, I somehow managed to forget that there are other ways to positively influence the world.

I also still haven’t made up my mind about a graduate degree; I would really like to pursue an MBA and go into non-profit or education consulting, but I wish that I could take comp lit courses for credit at the same time. Then again, I still struggle with wondering whether studying literature is an inherently selfish use 0f time (the same, I think could be said of a lot of higher level academic work). I am undeniably a more socially conscious person because of literature I read growing up and the conversations I had in humanities classes, but I don’t think I’m ready to go back into the classroom yet; I really want to be doing at this point in my life.

At the same time, though, I realize that the humanities make me feel, well, more human. After my last post on how we externally store our memories, my friend Machiko sent me an opinion piece from The Chronicle of Higher Education about how the belief in self is decaying, driven by the culture of technology. My response including the following, kind of an updated version of the above:

“So what do you think is the answer? I suspect that it involves living in homes without Internet. As much as I love social media and commentary and the instant gratification of +1s, I think the year of my life when I felt most alive was when I lived in France and didn’t have Internet or TV, and not many people calling me. I just sat around and thought about stuff a lot, read books, went on picnics. The only recent time I can think of doing something similar, I turned off my phone for maybe 12 hours (and fasted — I thought that was also important — and tried really hard not to know what time it was all day).

“Also, poetry. Reading and writing and performing feel like moods instead of concrete thoughts, in a way that you can’t reproduce with linearity.

“Ironically, I also really want to blog about this. Thanks for sending it to me! I feel like he understands what I was trying to say and rambled about.”

I performed spoken word at Tuesday Night Cafe this week, and I realized after that not only does reading and writing poetry make me feel human, watching and performing makes me feel like I know other humans and can relate to them. I think that in a way, social media provides the instant gratification of feeling heard and “interacting” with others, but being able to connect with an audience is like mainlining that shit a visceral, intense feeling of community. It’s … well, real.

And one last random reflection: What the heck is going on with my sentence structure? For the record, my friend did not respond to this e-mail, though I really don’t blame her, considering … [I just went back through the archives, and apparently I was gchatting with her while writing to her about my classes, so who knows why she decided to stay friends with me at all.]

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