Friday, September 26, 2008

Fear and Trembling

The first class I ever took in college was called "The Meaning of Life." It was an existentialism survey, and I didn't even end up majoring in Philosophy, but 10am Monday morning of my first day of higher education, I walked in wanting to figure out The Big Questions. This goal eventually led me to drop out, come back, and switch majors entirely to Religious Studies. It has also driven me on my path of becoming a writer, and led me in many (annoying, I'm sure) hours-long phone conversations with my brother about string theory, quantum mechanics, and the *General Theory of the Way of All Things.

This reflection was sparked when at the Harvard Bookstore last night with Tara I noticed this book. What an observation! When did universities become just income-generation bootcamps? When did our society become just income-circulation machines? Have we given up on these questions, really? Are they just too hard for our poor little meat-and-bone heads to address? Or are they out-dated, inconsequential, declared futile and discarded for the comfort of the sure momentary pleasures of a new ring and the scent of perfume.

When I was twenty-two, after a particularly low and long period of depression stemming from this consternating feeling of meaninglessness, a holistic therapist suggested I keep a box for the rest of my twenties, to open on September 9th, 2012, of everything that terrifies me. "I don't normally recommend to people to merely try to forget about their fears," she told me. "In fact, I never have. But you're spending every instant of your precious life on these questions that may not have satisfactory answers. I'm not saying you never have to think about them, just give yourself the next eight years to be carefree. You can do this, because you know when you turn thirty, you're going to look at all of them again."

"What then?"

"Who knows. Maybe you'll get depressed again. Maybe you'll figure something out. Or maybe you'll decide to put them back in the box until you're forty."

"Okay. But what happens if I die before I open the box?"

She just shrugged and smiled wryly. Of course. We all die before we open the box.

I put my fears into that box for over a year, and eventually, I stopped being afraid. I did things I never thought I could. I conquered my paralyzing fear of flying, I finished and submitted writing for publication, I moved to Boston, I stopped having social anxiety and made wonderful friends, I ended a clinging moribund relationship, I travelled and experienced things I never could have when I was twenty.

Somehow I have found, in all of this, an ineffable meaning that can fuel and sustain me through these years of early adulthood. Some raison d'etre in these swirling days of motion and stimulation that lets me, rather than Just Be, Just Do. Those terrible periods of depression in my younger years often left me all but incapacitated, unable to do my laundry, go to class, hold a job. Now I'm positively drunk on motion, on change, and my own luck to be in on this stupid crazy existence. Is that a meaning?

These questions are important, don't get me wrong. I think it's a major fallacy of modern society that such little worth is placed on their address. But at the same time, if you miss out on the beauty of life because you're obsessed with answering it's most rudimentary questions, I believe you're spitting in the face of any great Meaning you're trying to find.

I haven't put anything into that box since I was twenty-four. It's still there, in the bottom of my steamer trunk, waiting for that distant, impending birthday. Who knows how my thirty-year-old self will react to the existential horror of such a young woman who so fatuously thought herself so old, so close to death. Such a smartass, she was.

*not actually any recognized Theory. Yet!

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