I have a new theory, and it’s inspired by a book I’ve been reading, The Fault In Our Stars.
Spoilers in this post
In the book, the main charcter is a 16-year-old girl, Hazel, who has cancer. The everpresent barrier in the narrative is that Hazel is running out of time. The author makes it clear that she will not recover — that this will soon come to an end. And because of that, her world feels small. She flies overseas with her oxygen tank and her world feels small. She loses her virginity and her world feels small. As a reader, I couldn’t see past her looming death.
After all, the world is only as big as you can envision it. And if the end is near, how big can it possibly be?
But there’s a beautiful scene where she finds out her parents have plans for what they’re going to do after she dies. They’re ashamed and scared to admit it to her. But when she finds out, she is ecstatic. At first, it seems she was happy for her parents — but from that point on, her world seemed to get a little bigger.
So the theory goes: The size of the world we perceive isn’t just dependent on the places we can observe, but also the time we can foresee. As the time we can foresee runs out, the world gets smaller.
So when Hazel could see past her death, the claustrophobia that haunted her life was lifted.
I don’t know if John Green, the author, meant for this message to be a part of his novel. But once I noticed this, I couldn’t stop seeing it. I couldn’t stop thinking of it. And I thought, “I like my world to be wide and expansive. I don’t want to ever feel like the world is closing in on me.”
But decisions are made based on how big the world is to us. As time runs out, surely people think, “I wish I did this differently.” I used to think people’s worlds shrunk as they saw and experience more of it. But now I wonder if it’s not experience, but rather the distance to the end, that shifts out perception of what the world is.
I sit here and think I have so much time left. The world is big to me. The world is hopefuly to me. So I think, “There’s no need to panic.” But in The Fault in Our Stars, and in life, the size of the world seems to be merely an illusion — and that illusion is dangerous. There will always be more places to see and more time to experience. The question I suppose we all wrestle with is what to prioritize, but the illusion of the world’s size seems to convince us that we can mess up that order and have time later to get to the important stuff.
I ran through the halls an undergrad building yesterday. It had been years since I did this — years since my heart palpitated with the fear of walking in late to the disappointed stare of a professor whom I ever-so-desperately wished would approve of me. It reminded me of running through the Silver Center, which is NYU’s main academic building, cursing at the Neoclassic archetecture that split up two adjacent rooms with a 10-story wall. I remember how excited I used to be for class, and not just because I was learning about the dogmatics implications of wormholes for buddhists — but also because my best friend was in that class, and because there was a smarmy super senior who provided live comedy.
I jumped into the classroom, as if it was a finish line, and there they were: 20 kids, no older than 21, who were slouched in their chairs. I thought about what their lives might be like. Maybe they spent the early morning at the cafeteria with their roomates. Then they went back and studied in their room, and moved the activity to the library, where they met up with the girl or boy they secretly had a crush on (though not so secret, because they’d be spending virtually every day together.) From there, they went to lunch, sat around in the quad, because it was freaking beautiful and only undergrads can really do that and still feel productive. And finally, they came here, in this dusty classroom, only to have old me lecture them about data and journalism and storytelling and, frankly, how to approach life.
I felt so old at that moment. So creaky, so out-of-touch. It wasn’t so much a cultural difference or an age difference, or even a maturity difference. It was that, when I saw these kids, I knew it was unlikely they had to suffered through an existential crisis that could end with being unemployed, depressed and heartbroken. I knew they were excited, naive — in the best possible way — and big dreamers.
They were going to college in the middle of Connecticut, but that wasn’t important. What was important was that they believed they could do whatever they hell they wanted to do, and that made me excited. It made me want to help them make that possible — because I believed it. I told one kid: “Give me a week with you, and I can teach you how to program exactly what you want.” I told another, “Just focus on one dataset, and you’ll become an expert on a topic.” I told these kids that they could accomplish big things, because I knew they could. I knew that, with some guidance, they could do whatever they wanted to do. I could coach them, advise them, cheer them on. Whatever. It’s all possible.
I got back in the car. I felt good about what I had just done. I hoped I could come back some day and continue to help them.
But then I realized: I don’t believe these things about myself. I know I used to think I could do whatever I wanted to do. But slowly, things started become impossible. I couldn’t be a basketball player. I couldn’t be a baseball player. I couldn’t be an astronaut. I couldn’t be a psyicist. I couldn’t be an mechanical engineer. Whether it was money or physical limitation or intellectual limitations or time, things started to become impossible to be. And that was sad. So I asked myself why that was.
My first answer to myself was time. Those kids were so much younger than me. But I even told them that I was only six years older than them. That’s not much at all.
My second answer was that I was older and more mature. I was more realistic now.
But I’ve always believe the concept of “realistic” depended on where you drew the line.
So what was it?
The last post I wrote was about fear. It was the fear of failing, or perhaps the fear of not being able to support oneself. I think that’s a big part of the limitations we adults set for ourselves. But the other part, I think, is that it’s just hard. When we’re young, we have to do hard things. We have to push ourselves. But now, out of school, I find it difficult to challenge myself that much. I quit practicing piano when it gets hard. I don’t write a blog post when I’m tired. I go to bed, even though I should keep learning how to figure out a programming problem.
That’s a terrible excuse. I’m actually kind of angry that the difficult of a task had slowed me down so much. That anger used to drive me. I used to drive through the difficulty of a passage in a song or a concept in programming, and I’d learn it. Because I knew I could. Now, I keep wondering, “Can I do it?”
As I was leaving, one kids asked, “Everything you talked about today is so overwhelming. I don’t know if I can do it.”
And I said, “It’s not about whether you’re able to do it. It’s about whether you will. So, will you?”
It’s 10:22 p.m., and I’m scared I’ll be too tired for work tomorrow. I’m scared that I’ll get there and be unable to perform in a crucial moment, and I’ll be found out as an incompetent fraud. I used to stay up until 2 or 3 in the morning, even with work next day, and not feel too uneasy about it. But maybe it’s age or perhaps the lobe that controls responsibility had grown. Either way, I feel scared something might go wrong tomorrow because I didn’t sleep enough.
I used to think that, inherently, this means that the things I’ve valued most in my life is work. But now I know that fear is a powerful force in our minds. Even if work isn’t the most important thing in our lives, the fear of failure can be. I find peace in the uneasy balance between relaxation and protecting myself against failure. But the best things I’ve done in live involve me actively saying to myself, “I don’t care if I fail. I’m going all-out.” It’s an attitude I first adopted in Monopoly, because it’s a game. But it transferred over to some life decisions, and I’ve never regretted any of them. It’s that teenage invincibility everyone talks about — the invincibility that goes away in most people over time.
I’ve only recently realized I make decisions based on fear. Maybe that awareness is helpful.
I’m not sure when I decided that I liked the frenetic pace of journalism. But I know it was part of the reason I loved being in a newsroom. It was loud, rambunctious and, arguably, important.
But I was in the New York Observer newsroom when the Eliot Spitzer scandal broke; in the ESPN newsroom when the Yankees won the 27th World Series; and in the in the Boston Globe when terrorist bombed the marathon. I used to enjoy that environment. But more and more, as I get older and prefer thoughtful action over reflexive action, I find myself seeking quiet places between the every-day lives of people in their routine, where I can do quiet things.
I’ve grown to enjoy working at coffeeshops, watching people in action, but still having work on my screen. I’ve grown to enjoy walking around bookstores, with no plans to buy anything. And I’ve grown to love eating alone in the cafeteria, reading a book.
For breakfast today, I sat in my usual corner. I usually check my email or do something that connects me to the outside world. But today, I decided I wanted to enter another world — the world of John Green, author of “The Fault in Our Stars.” Now, it’s possible this is a younger person’s book, but I like books that are simple in narrative but complex in theme. So I read several pages of the book, which I’d already started, and I started to think about how not-at-the-center-of-the-universe the newsroom was.
We, news people, like to decide what is at the center of the universe. And often, we convince ourselves of it, too, as act accordingly. But I’m starting to disappear into corners of the earth where what’s important is what I decide is important.
This is Day 25 of my month-long quest to write a post every day. Of course, it’s not actually Day 25, but rather Day 28 with three missed days.
When I first started this project, I looked forward to every day of writing. Throughout my day, I thought about what I could write about. I thought about turns of phrases, about humorous anecdotes and clarifying metaphors. It’s the kind of thing people do when they really care about something. They think about it throughout the day; they plan; they get excited. But about 20 days in, I stopped looking forward to it.
I think part of it is that I don’t know where this is going. The purpose is rather vague. If anything, the purpose is to give me a purpose. That became painfully clear when I started other little projects that pushed this one of the top of the totem poll.
But the other part that’s drains the excitement from this project is that I’m doing it alone. I’ve often searched for writing communities online or in person, but I feel like I don’t have the energy for that. I feel like, if anything, I want to do it with my friends. I started this thing called the Rec Writers Club a few years ago, and tons of people were excited to join. Our careers were just getting started, and we didn’t get too much satisfaction from our work. We were working our way up the food chain. But now, many of those people are successful journalists and artists and writers and lawyers. And I imagine they get their fill of satisfaction when they come home. Because the last time I asked my friends if they wanted to start this back up, they said no.
A lot of my writing ends with a realization — something to strive for or a culminating message. But this one is merely about my inability to conjure up the energy to do this every day. Because of that, I’m often writing from the same place, with the same emotions. I suppose the pace of this is a bit off, because the issues I’m working through don’t change quick enough for me to write from a different perspective every day. So I find this to be boring sometimes.
I’m going to try to get back to my book once these 30 days are over. The book excites me, but it takes a lot of time and energy — the kind of time and energy that require my day job to be less draining. So I’m going to have to figure out how that balances out.