Thursday, October 7, 2010

October, and the Crushing Weight of Existence

Well, today is the seventh of October. I did not want a week of October to pass by without a post, so it seems I am logically compelled to post today. As you may have noticed, I failed to keep to my MWF updates, even after F became "weekend." So, I am setting a less strenuous schedule for myself this month. In short, I shall update at least once every seven days, about a topic of my choosing. I have quite a few posts about the education system and education in general running around in my head, in embarrassingly unpolished format unfortunately, so that may become this month's impromptu subject. This is fitting, as many of the people I imagine read my blog are educators.

Since just updating you upon my plans for updating this blog in October seems like a terrible cop out on my part, I am also going to post something that I wrote elsewhere, about my experiences walking home today.

I finished the book I was reading, Sophie's World, today, which I think warrants a celebration. In what I read today, the existentialists were covered, and the author talked about Sartre's notion that as beings that exist, we owe it to ourselves to do SOMETHING with our existence. Oddly enough, both of the books I have read this school year have inspired this thought in me, as it has been nagging me since I finished Deadline, by Chris Crutcher. I imagine that I was previously aware of Sartre's thought on the subject, because we talked a bit about existentialism in a Feminist Philosophy course when I was an undergrad.

Anyway, as I was walking home under the darkened sky, I almost began crying at the thought of how much I would never understand. Then, as I almost was home, it occurred to me that my dissatisfaction may be because I have lost my faith in mathematics. I remember being quite upset in high school when I realized that there were open problems in mathematics, that is, statements that we are fairly sure are either true or false, but we cannot prove certainly to be one or the other. However, I stuck with mathematics, as it seemed the best method to make sense out of the chaos by which we are surrounded.

Now though, I inch out along a slender branch, toward the tips of a tree of mathematical knowledge, seeking the budding areas where soon new growth will occur. My problem is no longer that these areas of uncertainty exist, but that in reaching them, I have lost sight of the ground from which I began my climb. In an attempt to gain an advantageous viewpoint of my surroundings, I have instead become so myopically focused on the tree I am climbing that I have lost track of my surroundings entirely.

The natural follow up question I asked myself is, would studying philosophy become a remedy to this myopia, or merely a repetition of the mistake that I have already made once? I suppose that since philosophy often concerns itself with the larger picture of what is and what should, it may be more conducive to keeping the vastness and wonder of existence in focus. However, I do believe that more than a few great philosophers have found themselves staring into philosophy and discovering an ever hungry void of uncertainty that has scarred them to the soul.

Anyway, since I have no dependents, nor partner, nor expectation or inclination for this to change in the immediate future, I have great freedom, what Sartre might describe as terrifying freedom, to shape my life at this point. It seems only fitting that I take some time to reflect on what I owe it to myself to do with that freedom. Of course, if you have any suggestions, fill free to leave them, I obviously am not making too much progress upon my own.


Frank said...

Well, Kenny, I really have no advice, except to briefly share my story with you. When I was your age I was a newly minted seminary grad, good old "Pastor Frank". And I thought I would be that for the rest of my life, except, of course I wasn't, and in fact bailed on the entire enterprise at the ripe old age of 31. So, if you do the math, I spent eight years in college and seminary preparing to be a pastor and six years actually doing it. Hmmmm.

And everybody told me I was a great pastor, but what they really meant was that I was a great public speaker, which I guess I am somewhat good at, but the pastor part? Well, even then I knew I was lacking, and now, with 20 years of hindsight, I can say with no exaggeration at all that calling me a pastor is an insult to every single person who really is one.

So, back to school to take the stuff that you took as a sophomore at WHS. It was really hard for me, but I think it was the difficulty of the subject that made me love it so. I finished with a 2.96 in my major and upon graduating my major prof stared at me in amazement, "How hard this must have been for you. Most people getting this math degree have at least a 3.7, and most people who only have a 2.96 math ability would have quit long ago. Good job. I hope you're very proud of yourself, because we are all proud of you, because we don't get many like you here."

And that was not an exact quote, despite the use of my quotation marks, but it was pretty close to what was said to me, and I have never forgotten it.

You know why I hung in there, despite the sheer torture that some of those classes inflicted on me? It's because I wanted math to be a high school math teacher with a math degree, not some quicky 15 credit certification deal that the majority of high school math teachers have. And so I hung in there because of that strong desire, and like you, I had nobody else to worry about, because Jayne was still three years in my future, and so I took my freedom and ran with it.

So, Kenny, my question to you is what do you want? Really, it's just that simple. You're good at math, but if it doesn't do it for you, then it doesn't do it for you and there's no reason to feel guilty about that.

I guess for a Christian, the number one responsibility is to honor God with our lives, and if we do that, I'm not so sure that God really cares what we do to earn a buck. By that I mean that a math prof can honor God just as well as a philosophy prof or a high school math teacher or a plumber or an investment banker or a...

So, Kenny. What do you want? Figure that out and all else will fall into place, I think. Good luck.

Max said...

I watch tv shows like "The West Wing" and "Dexter" and envy those people doing really important things for society while I sit in grad school. Okay, I don't really envy Dexter and his dark passenger, but at least he solves crimes, and deals with... societal issues...

The point is this: at the end of next Summer, I'm getting my Master's in Math and getting out of OSU. I've been offered a position in EECS, but I just can't conceive of a good reason to stay at the same institution so long. I'm hedging my bets that a program in Math Ecology will be good for me. I really have no idea; that ambiguity makes me very uncomfortable.

The real point is that we're only mid-20s aged people, and it's okay to still be figuring out what we're best at and where we can be our best. Ideally, right now, we're getting paid and paying off debts. Sounds like you're doing fine at that, at least.

You'll probably never be President, and you'll (hopefully!) never be Dexter, but you'll always be our Kenny, Kenny.

Kenny said...

Thank you Frank, you are living proof that you don't mess up your entire life even if you end up training to do something you do not feel called to do! By which I mean pastoring, because if you don't, mostly, love being a high school teacher, you missed your calling as an incredible actor ;) We all know how much you love in-service days! My favorite philosophy professor went back to school in her thirties, or forties, to get her PhD, so the two of you inspire some comfort in me that I am not screwing up the rest of my life whether I finish this degree or not.

Max, I would very much like to hear more about your future plans! I agree with your assessment that you need to get out of OSU, if only to realize how awesome it is by comparison to other parts of the world. I have seriously considered taking my master's and running, but at this point my ideal goal would be a philosophy program, but I am not in a great position to put together an application. I plan to start taking grad philosophy courses here, on the side, next term, which will garner me recommendations ideally, and give me some practice towards producing a writing sample for my application. However, if I were to quit the program after next year, I would have a master's degree that took 4 years, and would be stopping, hopefully, just a year or two shy of a PhD, so I really think I shall push through, I just need to get working on he next step.

Both your heartwarming responses make me feel quite guilty about neglecting to write, so I think I shall put up a post now.

Max said...

It sounds like you have a plan to transition to Philosophy, which is great. Recommendations are key, and so is practice for writing your entrance essay, but you have to be careful: it's very easy to let these secondary and tertiary goals fall to the way side as your requirements take up more and more time. From what I've seen, the last year of grad work can be especially crushing.

There's certainly something to be said for working on two projects in parallel (somehow one tends to refresh your abilities/energies for the other), but there are also only so many hours in the day.