I was really struggling with wording the opening paragraph of this column for a while—the rest was written, but I just couldn’t figure out how to properly frame the introduction. This malaise happens to me often. I stare blankly at my computer screen at an essay I’m halfway through writing, or my eyes blur out of focus over the paper I’m reading for class. Either I procrastinate or my mind wanders, but either way, I have the same existential crisis: What the hell am I doing with my life?
Generally I get over myself and realize it isn’t the time for soul searching, but in times like this, when I’m attempting to be introspective to the point where I can produce 1,000 words at least somewhat worth reading, I have to subject myself to this mental questioning. This time, I went for a walk and realized that I was having, in an absurdly ironic twist, the same exact problem I had talked about in the column I was trying to introduce, and then laughed at how ridiculous this introduction was going to sound. I’m going to stop now since this is mostly for my own entertainment, although hopefully the preceding nonsense will make sense by the end of the column.
So much of our lives is shaped and defined by our interactions with social circles, close friendships, family, professional relationships, and endless random people that we rarely devote sufficient thought and reflection to ourselves. Still, when we grow, we grow foremost internally, because only within the confines of our own minds can we constantly question, reevaluate, and realize ourselves, our principles, our core values and beliefs, and the basis of our motivations and desires and proclivities.
When I came to college I really had no understanding of myself, and mostly just operated the way I thought I was supposed to without really asking myself why. I was motivated, made strong relationships with people, and achieved and pushed myself to the best of my ability. I never really understood why I cared about achievement, or why I was attracted to certain types of people and certain areas of knowledge or even certain types of books, music, movies, and TV shows. I interacted with the world and myself on a much more superficial level. I swear the Committee on the Core isn’t paying me to say this (they’re just promising me the Music Hum section of my choice next semester), but Contemporary Civilization entirely changed my perspective on how to deal with myself, and in turn, on how to deal with the world around me in all its absurdity.
The CC curriculum introduces us to a branch of writing concerned with figuring out every aspect of the human experience, from spirituality to social and political structures to arts and culture to straight metaphysical mental masturbation. From Plato to Machiavelli to Nietzsche to Marx, the thinkers of CC try to explain why humans function the way we do. For me, the type of philosophy in CC—not too academic, but perfectly deep and accessible—was revelatory. Academic writing is too dry and literature too allegorical. The writers in CC were much more explicit about putting into words what I had always thought in a hazy, distant sort of sense, but was never smart enough to ever fully conceptualize.
I used to feel so isolated in my problems—which I suppose is just a condition of being a teenager—but I felt so strongly that what I was going through, I was going through alone. As a result, I couldn’t possibly begin to truly understand myself, because the questions I would have to ask would be too insanely massive to address alone, so I just didn’t ask them.
I realized from the texts that everyone has had the same emotions, desires, fears, existential crises, and questions that I have been having since as long as I can remember, and more importantly, that people have been coming up with ways of explaining and dealing with them since as far back we can go.
I look around on the subway now and I continue to be surrounded by strangers, but I realize that everyone is struggling through the same problems with me—dysfunctional family problems, stress and self-doubt, and shitty days—and that everyone is trying to figure themselves out. As individuals, it’s easy to feel that we’re the center of the universe, because to ourselves, we are. And it’s hard to accept that the depth of everyone’s experience is just as deep as our own. I remind myself of this as much as I can, because rather than feeling insignificant for the redundancy of my experience, I find shared experience relaxing.
In these moments, I also understand that everybody has entirely different ways of interpreting the world. The main issue with this column is that I’m tackling self-realization in an entirely esoteric manner, because I’ve come to understand, in a sickeningly meta sense, that this is the way I tackle the world and myself—through over (pseudo-)intellectualizing and endless questioning and analyzing.
The truth is, though, that everyone has entirely different paths toward self-realization, and even completely different definitions of self-realization itself. One of the reasons Columbia is such an amazing place for me is seeing how everybody finds that understanding. The paths to self-realization are limitless—the arts, theoretical physics, human interaction, sports, exploration, family, religious spirituality, psychonautics. Everyone has a different way of finding himself.
I constantly have those moments of intense doubt, usually inconveniently in the middle of doing work, where I stop and come back to the same question: What the hell am I doing with my life? Taking the time for these questions and realizing what gives us true fulfillment may be as cliché as you can get, but few of us actually take the time to understand ourselves enough to even know what self-fulfillment means. Following through is even rarer. In this environment we live in, we’re constantly told what our goals and conception of happiness should be. Sometimes it’s better to look inward first, and sometimes, taking the time to not silence our inner dialogue even helps write columns.
Leo Schwartz is a Columbia College junior majoring in political science and Latin American studies. Rationalizing the Irrational runs alternate Thursdays.