My last few columns have been more somber than I’d imagined when I first envisioned “Obsessive Kompulsion.” Originally, the plan was to look at a different one of my many tics each week, leading in with a fun representative anecdote, expanding on the broader implications of said tic and ending with a message along the lines of “yes, I’m ‘special’ (in the sense that I do very weird things), and I like myself because of those ‘special’ things.” Column number one ran this way — it was about my hoarding of memories — but number two took a turn for the dark side, about my fear of flying and mortality as sparked by 9/11, and the most recent ones have dealt in part with escapism, stress, existentialism, homesickness and depression.
The trick with these recent pieces (and with my original column idea) is to write in such a way that I don’t actually seem obsessive compulsive or depressed. In each case, my goal has been to express thoughts and experiences that we don’t often share, in hopes that others will in turn continue the dialogue — ideally among individuals, but at the least within the individual him- or herself. Understanding that what I write is permanent, my openness is an attempt to improve the “Stanford Duck Syndrome,” to show that it is okay and even healthy to give vent to what goes on in our minds beyond the surface of our “Lake Stanford.”
If you couldn’t tell already, I don’t have a column topic for this week, so I am using this time and space to reflect on my work thus far. Looking back on this volume, I’ve written one piece about SLE, three lighthearted “cutesy” pieces about why I love life at Stanford and seven — now eight — pieces that deal with my deeper personal development and experience. Within these 11 columns, I seem to jump between extremes of “Yay, life is great!” and “Ahh, life is horrible!”
This year — and in particular this quarter — has been a whirlwind; my mind has been stretched in ways I could have never imagined.
One of my best friends accurately summed up my experience this year: to paraphrase, freshman year is a dialectic — with fall quarter as the thesis (life is great) and winter quarter as the antithesis (life is horrible), spring quarter becomes the synthesis (life as something in between great and horrible). In the same way, applying this dialectic to my own self has been useful this week: I am not perfect and cannot be perfect, but I am not worthless (if you’ll allow “worthless” to be the antithesis of perfect in this duck’s mind), nor will I ever be. The synthesis of this dialectic is that I am something in between: I am human.
I expressed concern last week over what it means to be human, in relation to machines and artificial intelligence: are we just really complex machines? [or even simple machines? (Machines in the sense that our brains are “computers” in the most literal sense of the term and that we follow basic laws of nature.)] From this arose questions of consciousness — how do we each experience the world and is it possible to agree on an objective reality, given our subjectivities? — questions of free will and questions of human purpose.
This week, I’ve been struggling with how humans possess such capacities for violence and evil. We studied the Holocaust in SLE this past week, and coming out of the unit, I wondered if anything could ever redeem humanity, since it was our species that gave birth to such an atrocity as the Holocaust.
Only now do I realize and accept the syntheses in all of these realms: that our minds function a lot like computers, but (I think) we also possess elements computers cannot; that our actions and decisions are guided by larger forces but that most of us guide our own paths within those forces; that our “reality” is something in between a shared objective truth and individual subjective experience; and that our potential for greatness and wretchedness yields something in between.
Shades of gray, ambivalence and uncertainty are frustrating to questions of emotions (I’d rather always feel good), to personal achievement (I’d rather always do things well) and to questions of existence (I’d rather know why we’re here and what we have the potential to achieve), but only now have I realized that much of my angst these past weeks and months has stemmed from my attempt to fit the world into black and white pieces, to find concrete answers to unanswerable questions.
Maybe this column synthesizes these issues too neatly; and maybe I’m using “uncertainty” and dialectics to cop out of examining these questions more deeply. Given how frequently, to quote Alanis Morissette, “life has a funny way of sneaking up on you when you think everything’s okay.” I’m not going to pretend my problems and questions will definitively end here. It is my hope, though, that this column will be a step towards closure.
Was this column too somber? Too cutesy? A synthesis? Let Kristian know at kbailey ‘at’ stanford.edu.