Just before Yale’s spring break and my various reunions with friends began, I had my first successful meeting with my professor in weeks. After one too many castigation sessions, I had returned from a trip to Belgium and the Netherlands determined to prove my self-worth to him. Locking myself in my room for two days straight, I finally produced something that didn’t lead him to lecture me about Yale’s intellectual deficiencies.
We finished our discussion with my asking him what this “truth” which he often referred to was; the concept was so foreign to me, having eschewed universalism to become the average post-Modern Yalie.
Contemplation, my professor said. For Augustine, one should solve a math problem to solve it, not to build a bridge. One should study to study, not for a goal, but for learning itself. Pray not to please God, but because it is what pleases God. For Socrates, one should contemplate nature. Contemplate not to be powerful or rich; contemplation is the end.
“Moral seriousness is about peace for contemplation,” he concluded. “What counts is eternity and seeing the truth outside time.”
I suddenly recalled that once upon a time, I had done just that — thought for the sake of thinking, contemplating big questions. Who would ever think one day I would look back fondly on my angsty, uppity high school years?
But before I had a chance to really contemplate contemplating, I was off on a train that same night to Paris for a week-long trip. There I began, for the first time, to love art — my roommates studying abroad there made sure that I went to at least two museums a day.
And yet, despite the multitude of hours spent examining paintings and sculptures — I even went to a ballet — I had yet to do any real thinking. Again, my professor’s words bounced in my head: “There is a difference between learning to read quickly and learning to read slowly. You can read many great works quickly and be considered cultured. But being truly thoughtful requires reading slowly, which is much harder.”
So I was merely becoming cultured; I’ve now seen Magritte in Brussels, Van Gogh in Amsterdam and Picasso, da Vinci and countless others in Paris — but do I have any idea why they created what they did? How their art has shaped our world? Have I gained any insight into life’s questions?
Nope. All I did was take in as much as I could, appreciate the gift of being around genius and try to enjoy myself.
It was not possible, I think, to have “read slowly” in Paris. I was being given a rapid tour of one of the greatest cities on earth, trying to take in my brief reunion with friends I had not seen in months, all on little sleep and plenty of traveling beforehand.
Finally back in Cambridge — with no new guests arriving until tomorrow, no new traveling until next week — I have tried to contemplate. Frighteningly, I have found I can’t do it anymore. My thoughts are too cluttered with the “quick.” The gnawing of imperfections in my relationships, fears about a changing future when my American friends leave here, worries that I have spent my time abroad poorly — little questions that will be gone within the next year.
I have had to return to stored essays and blurbs of writing from high school to find real thought. I felt an odd mix of inspiration and loss to find that once upon a time, I thought about big questions and eternal elements of life. I had a life philosophy, dying for the day when I could contemplate — together with other questioning minds — idealism and hope for depth in life.
Did Yale take my desire for profundity away from me by showing me the impossibility of the search for truth? Did occurrences in my personal life scare me into avoiding contemplation for fear of emptiness? Has my life just been too eventful since I left the cornfields of my boarding school?
In any case, I will cease to disappoint whatever shadow of my high school self remains; I will break out of my laziness and fear. The superficiality I have enveloped myself in will dissipate eventually, I hope. Or if not, I can hold onto the fact that for one night, I have thought about thinking, which is closer to contemplating for the sake of contemplation than I have been for a long time.
Jennifer B. Wang is a junior in Berkeley College. Her columns appear on alternate Tuesdays.