SYDNEY: Asking better questions

Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention, but in my experience, boredom has proved far more prolific. At least, boredom better explains the bizarre traditions that have emerged from my family’s never-ending Seders, dinners held on the first two nights of Passover to recount the story of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt. We decorate the table with succulents to evoke years of wandering in the desert, cover one another in giant, red, circular stickers to re-enact the plague of boils and belt “If I Had a Hammer” — in eight different keys — to celebrate freedom.

My favorite tradition by far is a reading that accompanies the Four Questions — “Why is tonight different from all other nights?” — about the physicist Isidor Rabi. Each day when he returned from school, rather than asking him how his day was, or what he had learned, his mother instead would greet him with the following inquiry: “Izzy, did you ask a good question today?” This daily exchange, Rabi believes, led him to ask and seek the answer to the good questions that drive his career.

I knew this anecdote word for word by heart at the age of 8, I’d read it so many times. Seriously, if you would like a private and very abridged Seder, come find me and I’ll be happy to recite it for you.

This year, I’ve gone above and beyond merely memorizing my part. One could call it Method Acting: Seder Edition. For the past month and a half, I have engaged in an almost constant self-interrogation: “What am I going to do with my life?” Pause. “Seriously though, what am I going to do with my life?” Sigh. “What-am-I-going-to-do-with-my-liiiiiife!”

Then, I squeeze my eyes tightly shut, willing some image of my future to appear on the backs of my eyelids. It does not. I do not recommend trying this at home, though I suspect many of you already have.

I can’t say, though, that this self-interrogation has been purely Passover-fueled. It’s fueled in part by an internship search that’s left me waiting for replies from companies and institutions that may or may not want to hire me, in part by a reshuffling of academic interests that has obscured any clear vision of a path ahead, and in part by the realization that in just a few weeks I will no longer be a freshman, but someone who’s supposed to have a notion of what she’s doing here.

Honestly, I can’t decide on the scariest part of my spring break — the angry red spine of my copy of “War and Peace” staring me down from my nightstand, or these unknowns blaring just as angrily in my head. In Hebrew, the word “Seder” means “order,” which is funny, because for a while, I felt as though my questioning had sent my life spiraling into disorder.

So it’s nice to have these two nights of Seder, and of course Izzy, to reassure me that this questioning is part of my heritage, good for me and seasonally appropriate. I don’t need to be able to draw a straight line from an internship this summer to the career I’ll be happiest with when I’m 32. It’s okay that I’m reconsidering the names I’ve chosen for my children.

I am not an Israelite wandering in the desert. For now, I’ll simply pursue the things I enjoy for their own sake — inclinations may be the only things guiding me. And I, who ordinarily cannot live without my planner and checklist, am going to try and be okay with that.

Most importantly, I will continue to ask questions. Not the open-ended, scary kind (can you even know what you’re doing with your life until it’s over?), but the productive and thought-provoking kind, the kind the first Seders in the fourth and fifth centuries hoped to generate.

Matzo really is the ultimate food for thought.

Caroline Sydney is a freshman in Silliman College. Contact her at caroline.sydney@yale.edu .

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