I came back to school this term determined to learn a new language. This decision was a culmination of an entire summer’s worth of musings. I reflected on when in my life I had been happiest. After a not-insignificant amount of thought about sex and defecation, and the problems that might arise from a life devoted to these two things, I remembered France.
I remembered the feeling of elation when I successfully ordered my dinner. Or when I understood a schoolteacher asking one of her students to stand up and imitate the position of a Rodin sculpture. Or when I discussed with a 45-year-old mother of three how she felt when her father committed her mother to an insane asylum and refused to pay for the rest of her college education, forcing her to drop out and become a professional clown. I wanted to feel that connection again! I wanted to talk to more ex-clowns — but in another country! That is, I wanted to begin the process of unlocking the doors of the world.
Sounds great, right? If you look at my transcript at the end of the term, however, you will be hard-pressed to find a Lang written next to any of my fall 2008 classes. What happened, you ask?
I started out in an 8:20 a.m. Intensive Elementary Spanish class and then realized that I would look like a raccoon before too long if I didn’t get out of there ASAP. So I switched to Chinese, which was great for about two days until I realized just how much time I would be spending to progress just how slowly, and, after hours and hours of agonized (and probably hugely agonizing) conversations with family and friends, I decided to quit. By that time we were a full week into term, and I was already too tired to try to beg my way into Russian 110. So, dejected and utterly confused, I admitted to myself that, despite my best efforts, I’d be learning nothing practical this semester.
I couldn’t move on though, because I couldn’t understand what had happened. I’d been so excited about taking a language — why didn’t that excitement override the pain of 7:30 wake-ups or hours of saying “ma” over and over again to my computer? And then I realized: I had been excited about taking a language — it didn’t matter which one. Not Chinese, especially, nor Russian nor German nor Arabic nor Spanish, but all of them. Any of them. Besides my sudden urge for foreign interactions, I had no particular reason to take a language at all — as an English major with a passion for theater and an interest in LGBT studies, any country would be fair game.
And here’s where I’m going to justify my failures by getting all philosophical. It is incredibly difficult to make large but arbitrary decisions. Think back to college admissions — we certainly had some criteria on which to base our choice (yes, we knew Harvard sucks, blah blah blah), but I don’t think I’m the only one who was plagued by thoughts of the forking paths and shifting, ephemeral lives-I-could-have-led. It is impossible to deny that had I gone to Harvard, or Vassar, or Cornell, my life would have been entirely different. Even if I had gone to Yale but actually decided to do D.S., or assistant directed a different play freshman year, the circumstances would have shaped a distinctly different version of myself. But what sense can we make of this? The ontological status of these different “life paths” is very hard to pin down, even if you have read “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.”
This thought may be hard to deal with because we are all egomaniacs.
Though many of us embrace doctrines of chance and random occurrence (evolution being the most obvious and fashionable), it’s actually quite difficult to dismiss the notion that we are the way we are for some reason. The thought that I exist as an accident of circumstance is something very hard to internalize — doing so would seem to devalue my very being. I can’t seem to part with the notion that I ought to exist.
What follows from this, I think, is our desire to construct rational narratives, to create coherent identities, and to make decisions that “make sense.”
I couldn’t chose a language because I had no reason for picking one over another. The paths lay ahead of me — to China, to Russia, to Argentina. Down these paths lay vastly different experiences, which would lead to other different experiences, which would eventually amount to vastly different lives. But because none of these lives were clearly meant to be “my life,” I chose none of them.
So I am spending the semester reading Kant, Hawthorne and rape theory, trying to write a play, and staring cross-eyed at indifference curves. No surprises here. I could even submit my course schedule in lieu of an autobiography. Maybe I’ll continue in this vein, or maybe, just maybe, my Kant class will convince me that I don’t really exist, and I’ll have the courage to embrace the meaningless and delve into Spanish 115 next semester.
Emily Hoffman is a junior in Branford College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org