I like to quote the statistic on Carleton’s website that three quarters of incoming freshman say the primary goal of their education is to develop “a meaningful philosophy of life” because we invariably spend most of our time here absorbed in other endeavors.
Especially now, when we seniors have supposedly been around the block enough times to have gained some perspective, we’re probably feeling too tired or drunk or peaceful or fried or out-the-door or lazy or wise or whatever to try to force all disparate lessons from lectures and parties and lounging around into some coherent picture of how we ought to live our lives.
Perhaps a fraction of us will end up walking across the stage with a firm sense of our place in the world, but usually these things only become evident after the fact. Maybe when you’re unpacking boxes this summer or staring at your suddenly empty schedule those fragments of your time here will finally congeal in a moment of clarity, and you’ll understand and learn from exactly why things happened in the stages they did. That’ll be something to look forward to. Growing up never gets old.
I spent a good portion of weekends freshman year up til three or four in the morning playing Starcraft II. Hours on hours of ordering around SCVs and sending brave marines into overwhelming hordes of zerglings. I actually got to be pretty good – I beat my floormate Tor once and he was in Diamond League.
Once you play that game for a while you realize that the first two minutes of the game are the most important. Not that you can’t screw things up later on, but if you can nail the opening you’ll have a huge advantage. Getting your worker to carry his bundle of five minerals to your base one second faster in the first fifteen seconds of the match than your opponent can add up to thousands of extra resources by the time the game’s done. And so you try to learn all sorts of tricks for clicking them around more quickly to gain that resource advantage. It happens that all the best Starcraft players are in their mid-20s because after that, human reaction time and click speed start lagging.
I’m sitting in the CMC one day thinking about this, Dominos boxes stacked dangerously high, and I realize, holy bejezzus, this is the same way things work in the real world. The brain’s creativity and absorption rate also peak around 25, and so if you’re 30 and haven’t done anything significant you’re pretty much cooked. Therefore every small improvement you make now will ripple a thousand times over across the rest of your life.
I become obsessed with trying to cut every wasted movement out of my day: browsing the internet, watching sports, thinking about nothing while walking across campus, going to the bathroom when I didn’t really have to. What I was trying to avoid was a crisis – walking up one day when I’m 30 and thinking that I could have amounted to something if I hadn’t blown the time when my brain was at its maximum efficiency.
This was all prompted in part by getting pretty in to Nietzsche. The highest value in his thought is what he calls the Eternal Return, which he introduces like this: imagine that someday a demon were to come to you when you were alone and say, “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more’ ... Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus?”
I always imagined the demon appearing to me on my deathbed, forcing me in those last moments of life to return to all those hours wasted staring at AIM or hitting refresh on Facebook or going to a party to forget myself. Would I not feel the most profound shame for wasting the only life I have to live? Would death not be a reprieve from having to think about all that wasted potential?
This thought experiment is supposed to get you to live every day deliberately, to “say yes” to each aspect of your life because you’ve weighed it seriously enough that you wouldn’t have it otherwise.
In the short term, this exercise allowed me to accomplish more and stay busier. It also helped me stop doing certain pointless things (like playing Starcraft).
But in the long run this sort of constant mental vigilance was unsustainable and unhealthy. Mental toughness can become a sort of fetish (a la Fight Club) and if you discover you’re too weak for this “ultimate burden” you’re likely to let yourself go completely.
And in the end, there’s not such a large distance between Nietzsche’s Eternal Return and the Christian idea of last Last Judgment (indeed, the same man who declared, “God is dead!” also wrote, “how many new gods are still possible!”). As Martin Heidegger wrote, “Nietzsche was the best diagnoser of the ills of Western culture – but also its greatest symptom.”
Nietzsche’s thought skews the world by privileging the hypothetical moment of your life when you’re asked by the demon to consider the rest of it. Perhaps I will feel a huge panic when I turn thirty or on the deathbed, but that’s only one point in time and the majority of your life shouldn’t exist only to be judged by a particular moment or moments within it.
Instead, Heidegger says, let each moment present its own virtues, suggest its own meanings, shine through in its own way, not stand in absolute judgment from any other. That’s not to say become totally absorbed in the present or in yourself as you currently are. Heidegger made “authenticity” a buzzword, but he meant it in a much more expansive way than we typically use it. Not so much “be yourself” as “be all you can be.”
I’ve spent the past eight years running. The clock at the finish line is a sort of reckoning. When you’re younger, it’s wonderful because you’re almost always going to improve constantly. You put in lots of hard miles because you know there’ll be that that moment at the end of the race when you lie on your back in the mud and know it was all worth it.
But I’ll get older, and the body changes. The clock will no longer tell me I’m getting better. I need to keep the memory of racing for the clock to remind me what I’m supposed to feel like even though the clock now tells me only that I’m quickly becoming obsolete. And more than that, I need to prepare for when I have no races left to run and I have to be able to do it for nothing more than the joy of feeling my body cut through air and the way worlds appear when you’re streaking through them.
In a few weeks, many of the small “objective” ways we’ve defined ourselves henceforth – athletic performance, GPA, awards, how well you take tests, how many beers you can throw down, number of people you know, whom you’ve slept with, whether you’re on the weak list or the strong list, and so forth – will all of a sudden be pretty meaningless.
And the grand ideas that might organize our lives – art, philosophy, religion, social justice, human rights, family and so forth – have already been if not totally discredited then at least severely shaken.
Time feels out of joint, but unlike Hamlet I have no sense of any responsibility or grasp of means to put the world back together.
It’s a least an interesting problem. If nothing else I’m excited to learn and live it.