"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.

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