"I once had a sparrow alight upon my shoulder for a moment... and I felt that I was more distinguished by that circumstance than I should have been by any epaulet I could have worn." -Thoreau

Sunday, January 22, 2012

On Souls and Occupations

Research, internship, and job applications terrify me.

This is becoming all the more clear as I try to narrow down the list of programs/REUs I plan to apply to for the upcoming summer. I will look over a program, survey the application process- and then become terribly frightened. I am already anticipating the pain of failure. Even worse, though, is the fear of embarrassing myself and disappointing others in the face of sweeping rejection. I can too vividly imagine all of my tentative plans slowly crumbling before me, leaving me in the awkward position of explaining to those with a general interest in my hopes and goals that I have sadly failed... but... umm maybe next year will be better? It'll be nice to have the summer to relax....

Somehow I need a strong dose of confidence. Ideally this would not be baseless confidence. But it is a problem when I shy away from completing an application because I feel as though I have nothing meaningful to contribute- so why bother applying?

Remember the previous Slow Swan discussion? Yes, well that is a ridiculously wishful term.
At present I am a timid creature, trembling within my tortoise shell and struggling between tip-toeing off to a safe corner and forcing myself to poke my head out and be brave and strong.
It's so much easier to hide in corners!
But it does make it so much more pathetic, too. That is kind of a problem.

Part of the problem is also my identity crisis. My quarter-life crisis, as my brilliant (and very supportive) roommate terms the stage of uncertainty we are passing through. The more I ponder the issue the more knotted up I seem to become. I find myself straddling the fields of philosophy, chemistry, and mathematics (this complicates program selection considerably). I think I could pass as a philosopher, but I fear I would make a dreadful guise for a chemist or mathematician. I feel strangely trapped between being inquisitive and feeling like an impostor. Others seem so certain about their passions, goals, and identities... whereas I seem to scramble for sure footing.

Quarter life crisis indeed...

The other day, maybe about a week ago, I had just finished a math problem set and found myself, unsurprisingly, pondering this issue of identity. At the time I think I was feeling more certain about the possibility of mathematics (this semi-confidence has since vanished). But I realized that the problem was my fear of not having a "mathematician's soul."

Naturally, this brought me straight to thoughts about Plato's The Republic (haha).
In The Republic, Socrates argues for a state ruled by philosophers, among other things. Some of those other things included a process for selecting who receives the privilege of an education on the route to philosopher-kinghood, and who got put into the category of baker, artisan, et cetera.
I was not at all pleased with Plato on this account. Who gets to decide who becomes a baker? Who gets to decide who becomes king? How do they do this, and what right do they have to make this decision?
Of course, Plato was operating on the idea of a soul. Simply put, there are people with baker souls. There are others with philosopher souls. By the time you're a child one should be able to detect signs of what kind of soul you have, and place you into the appropriate category accordingly.
But I was strongly resistant to this whole notion.
First, what do you mean, we have souls that match us to an occupation? Nonsense!
And second, even if such souls exist, it seems ridiculous to posit that a young child clearly demonstrates the qualities of a baker, miner, or academic! To lock individuals into occupations on the theory of soul struck me as dangerous nonsense.

And then, here I am, fretting over whether I possess a mathematician soul, or a chemist soul, or a philosopher soul or... what kind of soul do I possess??

I still refuse to concede Plato's soul point. Despite my fretting, it seems incorrect to suppose that there is a clear line between "soul" and vocation.
However, it seems clear that there are certain qualities "requisite" for specific occupations.
If you’re going to be a doctor, you need to be driven by concern for the wellness of your patients.
If you’re going to be a teacher, you need to find the process of helping children grow rewarding.
If you're going to be a biologist, you need to be struck by the magnificent mechanics of life.
If you’re going to be a philosopher, you need to love sitting and pondering interesting questions (and it doesn’t hurt if you ask annoyingly insightful questions, Socrates-style).
If you’re going to be a mathematician, you need to be moved by the beauty of an elegant proof.
And so forth.

I don't know which occupations I would best fill. I appreciate all of them. I appreciate and admire the sorts of individuals who appear to possess these "souls"- whether or not that term is quite inappropriate- and somehow or another I want to find a place I can fill with pride and excitement.

Yet again, it seems the best I can do is to conclude with an unsatisfactory "I'll just have to wait and see."
...But will "waiting and seeing" really cut it? Can a tortoise hiding in her shell suddenly make sense of life?
It would be nice if enlightenment and passion suddenly struck me and everything made sense. But I don't think that's how it works.
I guess I'll have to force myself out of a shell and wander around until I stumble upon the answers to life.

Easier said than done.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Thoughts on Being a Slow Swan

And so it has begun.
A new year has been born. New classes have commenced. I have embarked on a new voyage bound for wonderful, unexplored lands.

Given the many opportunities waiting to be seized, it seems appropriate to do a bit of reflection and deliberation.

So, about a week ago, a few dear old friends of mine and I decided to go ice skating. Think of this as an analogue to my summer chess adventure, except slightly more terrifying. (Yes, I recognize that this may be a tad bit dramatic.)

Ice skating began a bit roughly for me.
Hmm, no.
 'Roughly' suggests images of jerky motion. Motion was somewhat lacking altogether...

Ice skating was going nowhere for me. Literally.
Hmm, better. Except that a literal reading makes it seem as though ice skating is an independent entity which heartlessly denies performing favors for me. Actually, I don't mind that reading. It is ice skating which is the problem, not me. Of course.

Okay how about...

In the beginning, I did not ice skate. (I like this. Hints of dramatic foreshadowing!)
So maybe I was moving at a rate of about 1 cm/min, but I think we can agree that this does not in fact count as ice skating. Ice skating is gliding smoothly and beautifully across the ice. Creeping along painfully slowly whilst hopelessly trying to shake off terror? No, there was no ice skating going on.

So my somewhat wacky (understatement?) friends and I decided to come up with alliterative, bird-themed nicknames for each one of us brave adventurers. There was Tanner the Jittery Jay, Araceli the Graceful Goose, Denney the Pompous Puffin, and myself- the Slow Swan.

As I slowly made my way around the ice- accelerating ever so slightly (no longer moving at 1 cm/min!) while making sure to keep my momentum at a relative minimum so that when the dreaded fall or collision came about my impulse would also be at a low- I contemplated, among other things, how surprisingly fitting our nicknames were.

Denney was already a beautiful ice skater, gliding swiftly and effortlessly across the ice. But Denney loves slipping on an oversized coat of fine pompousness in daily life... so the name is fitting. In fact, he pompously termed himself the Pompous Puffin. Go figure.

Tanner was hilarious to watch- though I made sure to keep my distance because his unstable, jerky ice skating method promised his downfall... and if he fell in front of me I would be almost certain to go down with him in an effort to not run him over. The flailing arm motions in the event of a fall would also be likely to bring me down. But Tanner's approach to the novel idea of balancing on thin blades and somehow using them to propel yourself across ice was to just go with it- shaky and jerky, awkwardly hunched over, dancing along to the music until having to brace himself from falling- he just kept making his rounds. His facial expressions would vary frequently and vividly- going from sheer hilarity to terror in an instant.

Araceli's technique was wonderful and adorable. She reminded me very much of Dora- except instead of "Just keep swimming," it was "Just keep skating." Araceli would simply briskly walk-skate her way around the rink- there were some falls, yes, and perhaps her technique was not perfectly kosher, but Araceli does not permit trivialities to prevent her from achieving her goals! She can be a goose- but she is a graceful goose. A bit silly and wacky, but determined and poised in accomplishing what she sets out to accomplish.

And then there is the Slow Swan. Alas, alas, it's true- except maybe the swan part... though that would be nice.
I have a marked tendency to be hesitant and to back away from scary situations. My instinct is to pull away, to retreat to a solitary corner, to shrink into my shell. Perhaps I would more aptly be termed Torpid Tortoise- though that does lose the avian theme.
My own skating technique, as aforementioned, is to reduce my velocity such that I diminish both the probability and consequence of failure (This "failure" is rather undefined. Does it refer to the instance of falling/collision in itself, the embarrassment resulting from such an event, or the consequent physical pain? This strikes me as an interesting and important question. What is it, exactly, that I dread and wish to avoid?); the flip-side of this cautionary method is that, relative to others',

(where v is the function of my ice skating velocity)

In other words, this method gets me virtually nowhere in a typical time-frame. 
This can be problematic.

To be fair, my method worked- given that the intent was to prevent "failure," given the non-definition earlier provided. I managed to avoid falling.
Moreover, there was marked improvement throughout the course of the evening. I went from virtually not moving to moving at a satisfactory, if low-momentum, pace.

So do I maintain my low-risk ice skating methodology? 

(Transition into life-talk.)

On one hand, my torpid tortoise method prevents the pain of literal and metaphorical scraped knees. That's nice, right?

Yes... but no. Scraped knees are not, in fact, the end of the world. (Even if I seem to act on the opposite belief.) 
And, more importantly, the torpid tortoise method can decline into a stationary-snail way of life. It's one thing to be slow and steady, and quite another to stop cold.

So for the new year? 
I hope to renounce the Stationary Snail altogether and to become a Slightly Slower Slug. 
Maybe next year I can upgrade to a swan.