Respect the Future

The only constant is change. It’s the most basic fact of all existence- nothing lasts, nothing stays the same. We feel it with every breath, from the time we learn the concept of mortality to our eventual inevitable passing. We ride a wave of uncertainty from the inception of our lives to the end and one would think that would make us used to it, but we all crave certainty. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, we hunger for solidity, for reassurance, for safety, for endurance and perpetuity. That is a big problem. In fact, it might even be THE problem.

Almost every religion and every worldview grapples with the idea of uncertainty. In the face of sickness, death, loss, grief, and suffering, we crave not just happiness but certainty, and out of this fear of change, thousands of dogmas, scriptures, and beliefs have risen, each promising freedom from change and everlasting happiness. The First Noble Truth of Buddhism teaches us the truth of dukkha, that life is suffering because all life is temporary, conditional, and dependent on other things. We suffer because everything that comes together falls apart. The chair I am sitting on, the laptop I am typing this with, the cells and the organs and the systems that sum up to me have come together, and so they must fall apart. Long before scientists figured it out, Buddha knew that entropy increases, things fall apart, and despite our best efforts, we are all going away someday. But more than just tangible things, everything is going. In our work, in our relationships, in our love, in our friendships, in our health, in our future, we are awash in a rough, choppy sea of uncertainty, desperately looking for a boat or a life jacket or even just a piece of driftwood to cling onto- and that… that is scary.

As for me? Jeez, change is scary. I am a man of habit, and I really don’t handle change so well. When I was a kid, I had these rituals where I had to brush my teeth a certain way and put my stuffed animals away in a certain order and say goodnight to everyone in the family before I was willing to go to bed, and if there was any deviation, I’d have to start all over again. Even now, sometimes traveling makes me anxious, I like to sleep and shower and poop in the same place, and I hate it when people change plans. This semester in particular, I struggled with uncertainty in my relationships, in my interests, in my future, in myself, and a lot of times I felt like things were out of my control. Change scares me, and I don’t do uncertainty so well. For me, what it feels like is the paralyzing fear of the unknown coupled with a desire for things to go back to the way they were, a debilitating fear that makes it difficult to make decisions and take risks. In a way, I feel a little like Wile E. Coyote- a few seconds ago, I was speeding on the road chasing the Road Runner, and a few seconds later I realize I’m running in the air, trying to figure out where the sky ends and the ground starts.

But how do we properly deal with the uncertainty that is ever present in our lives? To be honest, I have no idea.

But I did read this lovely op-ed a few years ago in the New York Times by David Brook entitled Respect the Future. In it, Brook writes about Charles Snelling and his wife Adrienne, who suffered from Alzheimer’s. Four months before the op-ed was written, Snelling wrote to Brooks about how taking care of his wife suffering from Alzheimer’s enriched his life, and made him a fuller human being. A little before the op-ed, Snelling seems to have changed his mind, and took his wife’s life and then his own. Brooks talks a little about his views on Charles’s actions, and suggests that because it is so hard to foresee the future, we ought not make decisions foreclosing future thinking, but rather respect the future.

I like that a lot- “respect the future.” We are abysmally bad at knowing how we will feel in a few hours or a few days, let alone far into the future. We have a tough time deciding what to eat for dinner after we eat lunch, and we buy the wrong amount of groceries based on how hungry we are when we go shopping. We are bad at making small decisions about the future, let alone big important ones. The truth is, we are all terrible at knowing how we will feel in the future. Our imagination adds and removes details that we may not notice. We exaggerate how much the future will be like the present. We fail to realize that things often feel different when they actually happen, and our imagination of the future is heavily tinted by our feelings in the present, and that bad things don’t often feel as bad as they do when we imagine them. And if we are terrible at telling the future, these weaknesses only get worse in times of stress and suffering.

In the face of this inability, I think it seems a little foolish to write off the future based on how we feel today, to imagine that we have mastery over how we will feel and decide in the future. Instead, I think it’s better to respect the future, and humbly wait for future events to unfold. After all, like the New York Lottery tells us:
Hey, You Never Know.

I suppose it would be satisfying to be able to provide some sort of concrete resolution, some way of clearing the fog and the fuzziness that comes with life. But I think an important part of growing up is understanding that embracing uncertainty is more than just claiming that “now we don’t know, but we’ll know in the future,” but rather accepting the fuzzy boundaries of asking questions and living life. There is a sense of liberation in embracing uncertainty- that life remains exciting and joyful, that uncertainty is a part of living a life of inquiry, that it’s okay to not know. This life is a mystery to us all, and to accept false certainty is to hide away and keep your head in the sand, forgetting what makes life so full of beauty and horror.

So even if you do not have the confidence to keep on striding along into the future, I hope that you at least have enough respect and faith for the future to keep stumbling on. I’d like to end with one of my favorite quotations:

Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day that says “I will try again later.
— Mary Anne Radmacher


My Quarter Life Crisis

I haven’t written anything in a few months (I know, I know, I started my last blog post like that too… I pay too much for this website) but since it’s summer and I haven’t been doing anything except binge watching Scrubs and spamming Shaco games, I finally have the time and energy to write some more again.

This summer marks the end of my sophomore year at Columbia and the halfway point of my college years, so this seems as good a time as any to reflect a little upon my two years of college.

I still remember coming to Columbia two years ago in August, moving in with my sisters, taking a picture in front of John Jay with a big blue “Welcome to Columbia” banner, unpacking my stuff, and sitting in my tiny John Jay single wondering why this room had pillars in the most awkward places and if I should be trying to make friends. I remember walking around lost around campus, I remember being confused by Lerner’s layout, and I remember feeling like a stranger in a very strange land. It was this weird mix of anticipation, excitement, and fear, and now, two years later, Lerner still confuses the fuck out of me and I still sometimes have trouble finding IAB, but I know my way around Morningside and Columbia, I have a favorite sandwich at Milanos (thanks Gary), and I have a bunch of great people I am lucky to call my friends. Even though the last two years just flew by, and day to day nothing seems different, in the last two years, looking back, so much has changed.

In my time here, I’ve learned some math and some CS, I’ve learned more generally what math and CS are, I’ve learned far more about Ancient Greek texts and political philosophy than I know what to do with, I’ve learned about the value and importance of hard work, I’ve learned about taking time for yourself, finding balance in life, and I’ve learned more about myself than I thought there was to learn. All of this has been an incredibly positive experience- this is all such interesting stuff, and I’m so lucky to be able to be here.

But I think one of the biggest things I’ve learned here is that things are not always so simple, and the really interesting and important things are often more nuanced and complicated than I expected. When I was younger, I thought that while every year, I’d learn and refine the way I saw things, eventually there would be an end to this recursive process and I’d finally be able to say with confidence this is what’s right. I expected there to be a pearl in the middle of all the layers of onion I was peeling away, and I suppose one of my biggest lessons is that there is no pearl- all that’s at the center is more onion. Life doesn’t lend itself to simple reductions, and anyone who tries to hash any significant part of it to a couple of sentences or lessons is using some pretty crappy lossy data compression. Things are complicated and often contradictory, and in the words of my CC professor, we are messy, messed up, and always messing up. Most everything isn't always so easy, and as soon as you say something is this way or that way, you’re often already wrong. In my 19 years, I’m happier and I’m sadder and I’m dumber and I’m smarter and I’m bigger and I’m fuller but at the same time I’m smaller and I’m emptier than I’ve ever been in my life. Is that contradictory? Well, maybe, but I am fond of these lines from Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself:

Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.

We all contain multitudes, and we are not so easily written off one dimensionally. The guy who bumped into you in the subway isn’t just an asshole, the professor who gave you a bad grade :( isn’t a dick, the quiet guy in your class isn’t just a quiet guy- we are all complicated, we all contradict ourselves, and we all contain multitudes. Any attempt to define ourselves by small traits is to do a disservice to the complexity of our lives.

But realizing these contradictions lends itself to a lot of uncertainty, and because of that, this past semester I struggled a lot with my identity and grappled with some difficult questions. What makes me a good person? How do I judge good and bad? What makes me feel proud of myself, by what measures can I say I’m doing well? What do I like about myself, what do I like to do, and what motivates or excites me? These didn’t used to be difficult questions for me back in high school. I had a (not always self-defined) idea of what good and bad meant, and I felt like I was a good person because I cared about other people and I did nice things for other people. I was proud of myself because I was doing well in school, because I felt like I was following a plan and meeting my goals. I liked my extra-curriculars, and learning new things excited me. Now, grades, despite being a standardized and easily quantifiable measure, just aren’t that important to me anymore (sorry mom), and I don’t have much of a plan for now, let alone the future. I’m not sure what it means to be a good person or for me to be doing well, because when I started to think a little more for myself and question what I used to think, my old beliefs fell away and nothing really replaced them. Things began to become more confusing, and as I learned more about everything, I realized I had left the comforting land of certainty for the fuzzier horizons of uncertainty.

I think despite all the evidence to the contrary, we all have a drive to understand and a desire to know, and it's a paralyzing fear- the fear of not knowing which way to move forward or what forward is or even where you are, of realizing that the world is not as linear as you thought, that it is a forward backward upward downward sideways kind of life. I wasn’t sure about very much, and I didn’t have much to hold on to. What made me a good person? What made me more deserving than others to receive these opportunities? What made me worth my time here? I was lost and anxious in a sea of uncertainty, and I felt like I was drowning a little, just trying to keep my head out of the water. Worst of all, sometimes I wasn’t sure if I was a good person or if I was worth it, and to question your own worth and value- boy, that’s tough. To be honest, I still don’t know the answer to these questions, and I think I won’t for a very long time. These are tough questions, and I think to provide reductive and trite answers is to forget how important and complex these questions are.

I think right now, instead of definite answers, all I can really say is don't give yourself such a hard time (God knows I do it all the time), and keep being patient, keep trying new things, keep faith in the future. Fly, and if you can't fly, then run, and if you can't run, then walk, if you can't walk, then crawl, but no matter what just keep living and moving. Take comfort in that some questions just aren't so easily answered, and it's ok to be confused and to be struggling, that life would be a lot less interesting if these questions had nice and simple packaged answers. So I guess if you ask me how college is, sure, I like college, I’ve learned a lot, I’ve grown a lot, I’ve matured a lot, but really,

The only thing I know is this: I am full of wounds, and still standing on my feet.

Tea Time

I haven’t written anything in the past 4 months, the first two out of laziness, and the last two out of busyness. Recently, I haven’t had too much time to think about my blog posts and put in the effort to write and edit them, and although I do have a couple of ideas, it’s hard to get in the creative mood when being so busy really squeezes it out of you. 

The last two months have been pretty tough, as Columbia always is. I started the year the way I always do, going to all my classes and paying attention (read: not on reddit), taking notes, not falling asleep, going to the gym regularly, doing my homework on time, and actually reading more than the Wikipedia page for my cc readings, but somewhere down the line something slipped and now I frequent my 10 am class once a week (if even), my gym progress has fallen alarmingly fast, and I’m not sure what the hell the character extension theorem is or what Al Ghazali has to say about mysticism. 

Now, with midterms coming up again, a bunch of problem sets to do, meetings to attend, events to plan, work to go to, internships to apply to, friends to catch up with, I feel a little bit like this:

It’s been a little overwhelming, to say the least. I feel like I am surrounded by a bunch of fires burning in my life, and I’m just sitting in the middle like this:

Note: arm is on fire

Note: arm is on fire

The individual days aren't too bad, but it’s really the grind that gets you. After all,

Any idiot can survive a crisis - it’s day to day living that wears you out.
— Anton Chekhov

I find that it’s not really the midterm/ paper/ problem set hell week that grinds you down; it’s the busy day followed by the busy week followed by the busy month followed by the busy semester, and before the year is over you start getting this faint but growing sense that you are drowning. It’s like everything that I have to do is tied to me like little weights and I’m stuck in the middle of a whirlpool, when all I need is just a long deep breathe of air. 

One of my friends in high school once told me to “make an effort to relax," and it didn’t make a lot of sense to me at the time. Why would you need to “try” to relax? But I kind of see what she meant now, because it’s easy to get caught up in your work, and all of a sudden your life is about your work. You exercise to keep your mind sharp for your work, you hang out with friends to take a break from work for your work, you sleep so you rest your mind for your work. It’s hard to figure out how to step away from your work, how to properly relax, and eventually it just feels like you’re waging the war on fun on yourself (hint: everyone loses).

I still haven’t figured out that work-life balance. These days, I feel overwhelmed a lot, and my mind feels a lot duller. It’s harder for me to study or stay focused or retain information as well, and my relationships are suffering and it’s harder to make time for people. During busy times in high school, I used to want to find a remote cave and spend a few days alone hiding in the cave, away from everyone, and recently I often find myself thinking fondly about that cave.

I like to end most of my blog posts with some sort of resolution or solution of some sort, or at least a satisfying conclusion, but I also like tackling hard questions, and this is a particularly tough question to answer. Most people I know struggle with it some time in their lives. So in lieu of a proper response, so far my plan is to just let the fires burn, and the waters churn, and 

I say let the world go to hell, but I should always have my cup of tea.
— Fyodor Dostoyevsky

?_?

I started working this summer at a hedge fund as a tech intern. It is my first 9-5 office job, so of course I was pretty nervous when I started. On the first day, I had no idea what to bring to work- what do people generally put in a briefcase? Should I even bring a briefcase? (I ended up putting my lip balm and some gum in my briefcase) More importantly, when I went to my interview, I was worried that I was massively underqualified, when I got the job I was even more worried that I was massively underqualified, and on the first day, when I went in to work, I was worried that everyone else would figure out that I was massively underqualified. After all, what the hell was I going to do with TWO monitors, and what would I be doing every day for 8 hours? Should I really be paid for twiddling my thumbs, and how many poop breaks are you allowed to take before people worry about your seemingly cripplingly frequent bowel movements?

Me on my first day at work.

Me on my first day at work.

I am now reaching the end of my first month of work, and I'm starting to realize that all of my fears were unfounded. This is not to say they were not grounded in some serious and real concerns. After all, it is true that I knew almost nothing practical walking into the job, and if four weeks ago I had to do the work I am doing now I would probably just stare at my computer screen(S) desolately for a few hours and google frantically before asking for help. 

But during lunch break on my second week of work someone asked me how I had already learned all this stuff, and how come I already seemed to know what was going on and what I was doing. When he asked me that, I wanted to laugh- me? Know what I was doing? At that point I was still busy drowning in a sea of financial acronyms, SQL queries, and obscure software. 

First week at work.

First week at work.

But over the course of these few weeks, I seem to somehow actually sort of kind of just a little bit figured out what the hell I am doing, and I no longer harbor the fear of having to manage twiddling my thumbs and looking busy simultaneously. 

It is true that I am just one intern in one company in one space in one sector, but I think my experience is pretty analogous to most others. No one ever really starts out knowing what they're doing, and not many continue knowing exactly what they're doing. I think it's important when trying new things to remember to not be scared- after all, everyone was once new and the people that know more are not likely to be smarter- they've just worked longer and accrued a greater accumulated advantage. 

That's a tough concept to grasp, especially because as young adults, for the entirety of our lives we've passively watched the world run around us, led by adults who were seemingly organized and in control, adults who seemed to know exactly what was going on and exactly what they were doing. But because of that, even though now that we are (nearly) grown up, even though now that we are (young) adults, we feel like we aren't ready to join the organized and in control world. We feel like we aren't ready to pay the bills, sit in an office for 8 hours, and worry about taxes (what is a W-2 form anyways?) But the thing is, the world is not organized. The world is not run by adults who are in control 24/7. The world is chaotic, and run by people who often have no idea what the hell they are doing. 

I am reminded of this lovely comic:

As a college student, you probably have no idea what an adult does, day to day. But remember, as a high school student, you probably also had no idea what a college student does day to day, as a middle school student about a high school student, and a lower school student about a middle school student, etc. etc. The transition between these stages are not soft- and they often happen without you noticing. One day, you still have no idea what you're doing, and the next day, you've figured something new out.

So I've learned to not worry so much, even though I still know very little- after all, knowledge is accrued through experience, opportunity, and luck.

At work now.

At work now.


.

A common aphorism in the Game of Thrones universe is "words are wind."
Amongst many others, Brienne of Tarth uses it:
Words are wind, Brienne told herself. They cannot hurt you. Let them wash over you.
Victarion Greyjoy uses it:
Words are wind, and the only good wind is that which fills our sails.
and Aemon Targaryen uses it:
What is honor compared to a woman's love? What is duty against the feel of a newborn son in your arms...or the memory of a brothers smile? Wind and words. Wind and words. We are only human, and the gods have fashioned us for love. That is our great glory, and our great tragedy.

Although used slightly different by each person, they all mean the same thing- words, like the wind, have no weight and no mass, and are not things to be trusted. This is especially true in Westeros, where everyone lies and an honest man is a soon to be dead man. 

This also, however, seems to ring true for us, albeit for a different reason. Words are one of our most important tools of communication, but they are often nothing more than a slight breeze, because like any other tool, words have their problems and limitations.

One problem that immediately comes to mind is that words change their meaning. Year to year new words with new meanings are born, generation to generation slang changes until we wonder what the hell the teenagers are saying, and century to century our language evolves so much we have trouble understanding each other (a major contributor to the success of No Fear Shakespeare). 

All of this by itself is no real problem, so long as we adapt along with changes in our language. Language can (and should) change as people change and our needs and method of communication change, so words having different meanings is a good thing. The real problem comes when we use words to mean different things simultaneously, when we use the same words to mean different things. To make matters worse, the messages that we distort with our garbled words are most often the most important ones, because the most important things are the hardest to say.

A good example of this is the word "like." While oft overused as a filler in lieu of pauses, the word "like" is also abused when we simply try to express what we like and don't like. To say I "like" this couch can be wholly different from I "like" these chicken wings, which is not too big a deal except we also use the same word "like" with people. I "like" Amy can mean something very different from I "like" Gina, and that woefully vague and poor distinction has led to some truly atrocious methods of expressing ourselves, such as the very popular turn of phrase "No, no, I don't like that person, I like like that person." Doesn't it seem like a slight problem that the same word can be used to show appreciation of an inanimate object, enjoyment of another's company, and fundamentally liking who the person is?

The problem worsens with the l-word. I am reminded of a great scene from Scott Pilgrim vs. the World:

Break out the L-word.
Lesbian?

 

There are a lot of 4 letter words that kids are not supposed to use, but of them all I think this is one of the worst. Isn't it strange that we can use the word "love" to describe our feelings towards food and furniture, but also to describe the greatest affection between people? That the same love we use to describe a deep sense of longing and happiness and joy is the same word that Brick uses in Anchorman?

I love... carpet. I love... desk. I love... lamp.

Again, clearly a joke, but not too far off the mark- after all, I love steak is only a short distance from "I love lamp."

The problem with words serving multiple functions and meeting a wide scope of descriptions is that it becomes hard to tell what the meaning behind the word is, and when someone tells you "I love you" it becomes difficult to tell if they are using the same love they reserve for lamps or a wholly different sort of love. And if we use the same love in so many ways, when we feel true affection and care for someone, how do we express that in words?

The problem extends far beyond like and love. I am reminded by a great ZenPencils comic, illustrating a C.K. Louis joke:

2012-12-04-louieck.jpg

We don't think about how we talk anymore. How do we express ourselves properly when we go "right for the top shelf" with our words now? By going straight for the big words, by exaggerating and overextending our words, we are blending the most poetic, most important, but most difficult things to say with the commonplace mundane things. That is lazy- and as Robin Williams so eloquently put it in Dead Poet's Society,

And how are you going to woo that girl if you already used up all your words on lamps and chicken wings?

p.s. rn