Looking Up: Do You Ever Not Wonder…?

Opinion by Nina M. Chung
Oct. 27, 2010, 12:18 a.m.

Looking Up: Do You Ever Not Wonder…?It’s starting to become clear…that ambiguity makes me really anxious, as do all external variables in my life that I don’t and won’t know. And this abstract stress-inducer comes in many domestic forms. For instance, it still freaks me out that I misplaced a completely finished diary somewhere in the world four years ago. Rainy days persistently remind me of my gorgeous, enormous umbrella that disappeared last winter at the Stanford Bookstore/Wilbur Dining. And don’t get me started on the locational mystery of well-loved pens I lent out in high school, because I’m still wondering.

Then short-term becomes long-term. Last year, for example, I collapsed at a table in Building 160 while reading a rejection e-mail from the only summer opportunity I had applied for—an extremely haughty six months of openly banking on that job, I felt total insecurity. Then there was the imminent disaster when the International Relations department asked me what my “post-Stanford plans” were, a question that was strategically shelved for a week, and still not answered in real life.

And recently, sometime last week, I realized much too late that I was playing out that one shamelessly cliché scene found in most of the movies I despise: I was (oh, this is embarrassing) literally waiting by the phone. Ugh, yeah. For a call that wasn’t coming. Inevitably I was filled with questions, I was anxious and I was downright grossed out with myself being in that situation. I wanted answers—now.

This is the typical, ambiguous experience that epitomizes (a) the existence of unanswerable questions and (b) how it leads to anxiety. We fumble around asking annoying questions like: What do they think of me? When did things change? When will I find out? Did the lost-and-found people not look hard enough? But it’s an equation with too many variables, an event characteristic of a world of imperfect information. There’s no objective, omniscient, third-person narrator (which is unfortunate, because hearing a calm Morgan Freeman every day would probably do us all a lot of good). Ultimately, I don’t know your total situation, and you surely don’t know mine. And still our lives collide into each other or temporarily run parallel, but the fact is, we confuse each other like crazy because we’ll never know all the causative details.

So there I was, navigating a frustrating roundabout of whys and hows and whens, feeling pretty much left in the dark, with unringing cell phone in hand. But I realized—epiphany!—that there was one thing I knew for sure: I was here, being me, and everything on the other side of the phone line was simply…not in my jurisdiction. Knowing answers about someone else’s circumstances wasn’t going to change this situation. But letting go of the unknowable, distracting questions was. So I stopped the self-caused ambiguity anxiety, and it was the most refreshing breath of air for my former mental mess.

In accordance with my thematic novel of a life, a close friend of mine, Kevin Morton ’12, told me an uncannily related story that has been running in my head since. We ran into each other the second week of school, and he told me how he had lost his camera somewhere around a castle while participating in an archaeological dig in northern England this past summer. It was only the first week of a huge, new experience, but Kevin said the camera was surely invisible in tall grass, there was no way to retrieve it, and he actually felt freed from the duty of taking pictures instead of living them out first-hand. Within moments, my friend Kevin, having one of the brightest attitudes I’ve ever encountered, just let that veteran camera go.

Three months later, moving back into Stanford, Kevin received an e-mail from a woman from the south of England. Her family had been playing Hide-and-Seek at a castle up north when her treasure-seeking son picked up a relic of a camera. They then spent the summer navigating the Internet to find its owner via records of marathon IDs, e-mail addresses of soccer coaches, high school sports team sites, Stanford athlete bios and Kevin’s dad’s work website. In a beautiful twist of plot, this family spent so much more time on that camera out of compassion than Kevin ever did in anxiety.

Conversely, I’ll admit that I spent a lot of precious time last week speculating the unknown. But I seriously loosened up on the useless questioning; I let go. And really, it makes all the sense in the world that I ended up losing nothing and gaining a lot more.

Amid all the things we won’t ever know, there is one thing you should know by now: Nina’s e-mail address is [email protected]. So keep e-mailing. She’s loving her reader responses.

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