The Undefined: On leaps of faith

May 27, 2024, 6:39 p.m.


Rachel is on a plane. The plane is going to Paris. In Paris is the job of Rachel’s dreams, everything she has worked towards for the better part of the last decade. The plane, right now, is in New York. In New York are Rachel’s friends. In New York is the man Rachel loves. The man has just told Rachel that he loves her too. Rachel sits on the plane. The plane is going to leave soon. She has a minute, maybe two, to decide what she should do, what she can do, but really she has no time at all.

Rachel gets off the plane. She goes back to the man’s apartment. I got off the plane, she says to the man. Cue romantic comedy kiss, cue grand reaffirmation, re-confession of love. Presumably, she stays in New York. Presumably, they live a happy sitcom life together.


This is the ending to Friends, a show I’ve watched and rewatched since I was twelve. (Sorry for the spoilers.) I used to hate this ending. Rachel was going to work for Louis Vuitton, I would tell people. It was a huge deal! It is a huge deal! She gave all of that up for Ross, some holier-than-thou, know-it-all paleontologist who couldn’t make it work with her every other time before? Ross, who had a screaming meltdown over his coworker eating his sandwich? She shouldn’t have gotten off that plane. She should have gone to Paris, found a chic apartment in a cute arrondissement with beautiful bakeries and picturesque cafes, and dated French men who would wine and dine her, bring her flowers on their first dates just because. 

But Rachel chose Ross. In the end, she needed to know the answer — if they still loved each other, if they still cared for each other, shouldn’t they try to make it work? Couldn’t they make it work? In the end, it was her choice, and that’s all that really matters. Screw me. She and Ross were in love — are in love.


My mother moved countries, continents, to be with my father. To be fair, as far as I know, she and my father never had the sort of turbulent on-and-off relationship that Ross and Rachel made famous, and the geopolitical and economic situation in China during the early 1990s was also starkly different from that in New York City. Still, after they both graduated from college, when he got into a master’s program in chemistry in Oklahoma, she followed him. 

I wonder sometimes if she regrets that choice. She left behind her entire family — her mother, her father, her younger sister — and a substantial portion of her friends. She left behind Beijing, the hutongs of her childhood, the noodle shop where she went nearly every day in college, for the dust and wild cornfields of Oklahoma. But if she does regret it, she’s never told me. 


My best friend’s mother also moved continents to be with her husband, though the details of her story are radically different. She met her husband-to-be in the U.S. through mutual friends. They’d been dating for about a year when he got a job offer in Hong Kong, and he asked her to move with him. She said she wouldn’t unless he proposed, so he did. She quit her Ph.D. program and they got married. 

I asked my best friend if her mother ever regretted this, and she said that no, she didn’t, that her mother might have liked the Ph.D. program but she loved her husband more. I think about a month ago, when my best friend’s parents took us out for a birthday dinner in San Francisco, and afterward I watched as her parents held hands over the car console, so clearly adoring, so clearly in love. I looked at them, and the only thought running through my head, at that moment, was yes, yes, I want that. 


At this point, every major publication has dared to ask the oh-so-difficult question: gosh darn it, just what is wrong with dating these days? They’ve blamed the Internet, dating apps, TikTok, the president, and probably every other grand sociopolitical force you can think of.

But I think the real reason is just that people do less for love these days. Less people are willing to brave a year, two years, three years of long distance for a relationship that may or may not end in marriage. Less people are willing to uproot their lives and move thousands of miles for their partners.

Undeniably, it is a very, very good thing that women (and yes, for the better part of human history, it has mostly been women) aren’t immediately sacrificing their dream jobs and lifelong aspirations to be with a partner. It is good that we live in a time where everyone, for the most part, and particularly at a place like Stanford, has the latitude to explore their passions, academic, professional, artistic, and otherwise. But I think that it should not be a particularly contentious statement to say that it is nice, lovely, in fact quite wonderful, to have a partner, to be in love, and that to find that we do all have to make some sacrifices, or at least be bold enough to choose love in the first place. 


Perhaps we take a cue from Giovanni’s Room: “Not many people have died of love. But multitudes have perished, and are perishing every hour — and in the oddest places! — for the lack of it.”


Back in the fall, staring down the impending end of my own relationship, I texted a friend, asking her if she ever regretted trying long-distance with her last partner, given their eventual breakup. 

I’ve thought a lot about whether he and I should’ve ended things over the summer when it was still good, she told me. He would’ve been a memory of the happiest time in my life instead of this symbol of resentment, but I think I still don’t regret trying. “We did our best and we couldn’t make it” is easier to live with than “what if we’d tried and it worked out.”

So Rachel got off the plane. 


I haven’t read The Bell Jar in years, but the passage from it that always resides in the back of my mind is Plath’s fig tree. The figs are an analogy for all the lives that her protagonist, Esther, could possibly live. Esther imagines herself sitting in this fig tree, wanting to choose every single one of these lives, and from her own indecision, watching as the figs fall from the tree and shrivel up, leaving her with no choices at all. 

And yes, I know that Esther was just hungry, that this is a bleak metaphor, that we are still all so, so young, that we have free will, that if you are an investment banker sitting in your office at five in the morning for the fifteenth day in a row nothing can really stop you from handing in your two-weeks notice and packing your bags for the south of France.

But ultimately, everything will require some sacrifice. We can’t pick every fig. There will never be enough time. Eventually, we have to close our eyes, choose one, and take a leap of faith.


This is not to say, of course, that every leap of faith will succeed. Unfortunately, I am not a fortune teller or your Co-Star. I cannot give you the guarantee that the girl who sits two rows down from you in Math 51 will be your future wife. But isn’t it worse to suffer quietly, to just wait and wait until the clock runs out and you never did anything about it at all?

It is not more noble or virtuous or painless to wallow in your own silent misery, to be stubborn for the sake of being stubborn, never taking a step towards what could be love. The hurt will be there regardless — one day, it will hurt more to look down at your feet and see the dead brown figs and think about all you lost by not trying at all. 

Pluck a fig. It might be sweet — sweeter than you could ever imagine.

Kathryn Zheng ’24 is from New Jersey. She is majoring in Economics and currently writes for Arts and Life as a columnist under the Culture desk.

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