On academia and the summer, or “Keeping in touch with your mind”

Prologue

Eleven days of July have elapsed – we are well into the summer, then.  Interestingly, I feel that, this year, I needed this season.  Whilst most people eagerly anticipate every occurrence of July and August, I’m typically quite content with transitioning from fall-to-fall, so to speak – in other words, I’m usually happy to plunge from the race that is one academic year to the next.  In fact, I have often thought that I’d gladly dispose of the summer months.  This was, admittedly, back when I found them stagnant – when I was young[er than I am presently], and in some ways still thought that I wasn’t powerful enough to do any real thinking outside of school (I still think my thoughts worthless, but I attempt to conjure them up anyway).  More recently, I’ve used them for intellectual exploration, and have thus been able to take more joy in them than I did previously.

This year, however, I felt something that I haven’t ever felt before: a sense of need for July to present itself.  I was uncomfortable with the school year – not with the curriculum being discussed in my high school classes, certainly, but with myself.  I felt myself running ahead without looking around me and reflecting, if only by dint of the quantity of things that needed doing.  This is the one thing that I judgmentally, assertively, confidently always tell others to avoid succumbing to (in fact, I feel so strongly about it that I discussed it here, in reference to the MCAT).

It was only today, after I discussed my feelings with Juensung, that I finally began to feel myself again.  I’ll paraphrase our conversation here, and supplement it with some other tidbits.

I began by remarking that I feel as though it’s become unusually difficult for me to turn my scalpel inwards.  I remember the days of my doing so frequently, though; my recent encounters with Juensung and another new friend – Charles – probably threw me a closed timelike curve, in that I almost feel as though I’ve been tossed back a year. After having conversations with them, I started thinking about [thinking about thinking] again. I don’t believe I ever quite stopped using my temporoparietal junction: throughout the year, I remained intrigued by the beauty and complexity of the external world and therefore, to some extent, I did contemplate my cognitive existence (as evidenced by the fact that I occasionally wrote things here). However, there was always so much to. So much to focus on that involved describing things for others, or conveying thoughts in a readily approachable format, or running to and fro between meetings, or swallowing complex insecurities and questions in the hopes of keeping up with the race. I love this ten-month marathon, as I’ve noted previously, but I love pure science and some of the humanities more than anything else. Whilst I did get the chance to explore these things from September to June – via research, contests, and aiding others – I didn’t have as much strength as I would have liked when it came to sitting down, caffeine-free, and relaxing into pleasurable musing.  I felt as though I was falling apart.  Fewer and fewer M.I.T. physics problem sets saw enthusiastic late-night completion.  Observational astronomy was a thing unheard of.  I ran past trees without examining their bark to determine their species.  I walked Endy on occasion, fed Meowsee daily, and watched the fish that live with me every so often, but I didn’t have the time to extract meaning from my interactions with them (which had always made me considerably more content than my dealings with people).  Literary analysis grew steadily less easy.  I observed things as I had previously, but responsibilities prevented me from doing enough reading.  Whilst others didn’t notice this too much, I felt my English skills, already far from lovely, slipping.  And I found myself forgetting things.  I occasionally had trouble concentrating, too – there was just that hint of nebulousness in the mind.  And it pained me.

I noted earlier that this occurred by dint of my schedule.  However, I by no means wish to abandon the leadership-related and non-academic things I do – they’ve their own intrigue.  Quite the contrary: this coming year, I intend to get more involved, and in ways that are meaningful to my ideas regarding intellectualism.  It’s not as though my time constraints were ever overwhelming – others have explored the possibility of my simply doing too much, but I have reasoned through my circumstances and arrived at the fact that fewer activities wouldn’t benefit me in any way.  How do I know this?  Quite simply, I’ve always been involved to the depth and breadth that I am presently, but I only felt so rushed, so distant from myself, so uncomfortable this year.

What, if not added pressure in the form of too many commitments, caused this?  I think my detached state just emerged at present because I’ve had a slightly rough year – because I’ve filed an abundance of emotion in relation to some very important people, because individuals with prominent roles in my life have differing thought processes than I do that I occasionally feel I must strive to adopt, because there have been life-changing disappointments whose potency I try to ignore, and because I was spontaneously thrown an opportunity that is trying its best to define my life. Yes – I personify the conditional to that extent because I sometimes feel like it has a mind of its own. And I don’t like it.

As of today, however, this is over.  I – or rather, I – am back.  Whilst I’m glad to see this comparatively brief segment of the strange sä-gə over and done with, it is a milestone, and questions that will aid me in exploring my existence have arisen.  I’ve taken a metaphorical B3 to some of them in the paragraphs that follow.

Is academia something I do inherently for the pleasure of it?

I’ve always thought so.  As I mentioned above, I feel considerable sadness when I’ve less time to explore my science and my humanities: I feel myself fading, and this makes me grow agitated.  I’ve always found a great deal of comfort in the fact that regardless of my circumstances, I can lurk in the realm of truths both abstract and concrete, so naturally, when I’m somehow prevented from intellectual exploration, I feel unsafe.

What about fame and fortune?

Occasionally, I hear of other reasons for pursuing academia that make me suspicious of my own motives.  At this point, I’d like to bring forth two tidbits from a post on Juensung’s blog.  I read through this and found myself captivated by two of his segments:

“I want to be ‘that’ professor. The brilliant one, the inspired one, the sought-after one. I want to be the professor that seems intimidating on the first day of class, but who still manages to have his classes filled to the aisles. I want to be the professor that you’re afraid to come to for extra help or life advice, but who will always give it to you freely, and whom you’ll be glad you went to. I want to inspire my students to be all that they can be. I want to be the pride and envy of my colleagues. Call it grandiose. But that’s the kind of career I want.”

I found parts of this tempting, and finished reading to find desire resonating within me.  I know perfectly well that I wish to be within academia for the purpose of learning more and aiding others in learning more, but is that it, really?  Or does something subconscious hungrily seek to be not only helpful to others, but also their pride and envy?  Is there something that seeks to use prominence in academia to reap social rewards?  More specifically, have I chosen this lifestyle because I can’t realistically connect with people via any other means?

“I’d like to be the perfect Renaissance gentleman. Versed in the arts, cultured, quick-witted, well-spoken, multilingual, a welcoming host and gracious guest, at home on the ballroom and the battlefield alike, unfailingly polite, etc., etc.

I’m no stranger to these desires, either.  But again – why do I wish to explore most aspects of life, and to maintain positive relationships with people?  Do I wish to be quick-witted and well-spoken for the purpose of impressing in conversation, or simply because a more streamlined thought process would enable me to explore more of my universe?  Would I endeavor to know the arts, dance, and combat because individuals well-versed in their existence are considered cultured, or because I wish to derive a new level of pleasure from them – one available only to those with increased understanding?  Unfailingly polite to appear good, prevent myself from feeling guilt, and gain new, perhaps slightly artificial relations with people, or polite despite some personal views to ensure that I don’t harm those that I love already?

All of that asked, I answer: thus far, it seems that yes, I am in academia for the pleasure of it.

People around me tend to focus on one or two areas of endeavor.  Quite frequently, I’ve gotten the “You can’t do everything!” talk.  So, why do I try?

People around me tend to have other reasons for entering academia or related pursuits (e.g., medicine).  To them, then, the rewards they extract from their studies and their professional lives are important.  I will not claim to ignore these things entirely, but I’ll effect a simile.  To me, my devotion to academia – I have, at this point, stubbornly decided that I will spend my life in it – is rather like a person’s maintaining an unrequited love: uncertain but free of materialistic doubt, perhaps unrewarding but pointless to fight, and somehow enriching regardless of a possible absence of tangible rewards.

Understandably, for people who are more rational, both unrequited love and blind devotion to academia may appear largely moronic.  Successfully completing one’s MD, for example, is to those fighting for stability much more reasonable than plunging into a wayward research career.  And successfully completing one’s MD takes an abundance of work.  Because of this, I think, many individuals whose first priority is to maintain financial and societal standings must sacrifice some aspects of their interests and specialize.  Whilst my attempts at being a scientific generalist may result in my being penniless, I’m neither sane nor sensible enough to dismiss things I like.

Several individuals I know, brilliant as they are, tell me that the chances of claiming a significant research career are miniscule, and that they, despite their affinity for research and academic work, will therefore not be trying to take this path.  Am I not aware of this?  Why don’t I quit?

Ivory-tower and overly-idealistic as it may be:

“One should be so deep in study that he forgets to eat, so full of joy in learning he ignores all practical worries, and so busy acquiring knowledge he does not notice old age coming on.” – Confucius

Thanks for reading!

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4 Responses to On academia and the summer, or “Keeping in touch with your mind”

  1. hwonsoong says:

    I was referenced! I feel all happy and stuff.

    I feel I should address why I wish to be the way that I described. On the subject of my career, I do indeed pursue it out of pure, vital, inexhaustible love. I love philosophy more than anything else in the world. The simple sequence of confrontation, bewilderment, realization, comprehension, and understanding is is greater to me than all religion’s miracles. The birth of an idea holds more magic in it to me than the birth of a child. Yet easily could I pursue it on my own time, without making a career out of it. Why, then, do I intend to do so? Two reasons. One, I was saved from a very dark place by the man who introduced me to philosophy. As he rescued me from myself with the wisdom of men far greater than I could ever hope to be, I wish to help others be the best that they can possibly be. I want to saveguard the past and pass it on to the future. As we move forward into an age of machines, I want to ensure that the wonders of the human soul are not forgotten. I wish to be “that” professor because it would allow me to spur people to be truly great, whther I am an object of admiration or envy. I want to touch the lives of as many people as I can. That is how I will validate my existence. My second reason is that that same man told me that I had the potential to make a career of this. For me, this was the greatest praise I’ve ever received. The simple words “you could do it,” were what spurred me to take my passion to an entirely new level.

    As for why I wish to be the perfect Renaissance gentlemen, well, that one’s easier. I just admire that sort of person, and so I wish to emulate them. And I believe, as best said by Robert Heinlein, that “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.” Also, I love human beings. We have the potential to be so much more than an ugly bag of mostly water. and if I can become such a person, I believe I owe it to myself to do so.

    Now, that being said, I am unsure that we will ever know why we wish to be the way we wish to be. I ask myself this daily. Why do I do good? Is it because I am a good person? Is it because I enjoy being good? Or is it it because I enjoy the sense of moral superiority? I truly do not know. All I know is that I do as I do because it feels true and good and beautiful to me. I should need no other reason.

  2. hwonsoong says:

    I feel compelled to share this story, though I am unsure as to why.

    At the end of the year, I was informed that I was to receive the history award. Mine was not the highest mark in the class (here I will admit to not having been overfond of it. This is not an excuse, however), so I was curious as to why it was me receiving the honour and not my friend, who had the higher mark. My teacher told me that it was because I showed the most passion. This was not a satisfactory answer to me, but I’ve learned to take accolaides with good grace, so I protested no further and instead thanked her for it.

    I later broached the topic of the award and my confusion with my mother. She told me that there was a difference between me and my friend. She studies hard to get good grades. I study for fun and get good grades as a side effect of doing what I love. Simply doing what you are told should not be recognized. But true pursuit of learning, that is something that should be respected and honoured.

    Don’t fear to do what you love. In some way, shape, size, or form, though you may not understand why, you will be rewarded for being true to your soul.

  3. Sean says:

    I relate completely. 🙂 Great post (although I am biased by my empathy obviously).

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