Are you thinking of going to India to find yourself?
Congratulations. You are among a surprisingly large cohort of perplexed Yalies who probably read/saw “Eat, Pray, Love” and took it a bit too seriously.
I’m not sure where you left yourself last, but let me guess: You are having difficulty answering any question for which there is no authoritative primary source — important questions like “what should I do with my life?” or “what really makes me happy?”
And there’s this incredibly anxious feeling that you won’t know until you have spent four months traveling on budget airlines to stare into the face of an old, wrinkled guru in some remote sacred land. There, between the lines on his forehead, you will see everything you wanted to see. You will realize the answer to all of the things you question about life, yourself and ~the meaning of it all~. And then you will drink from the fountain of youth, come to terms with your mortality and somehow find value in your incredibly frivolous art history degree. With nothing but some dirty clothes and a rucksack full of spiritual souvenirs, you will emerge a reinforced, self-actualized you — a happy, fulfilled adult.
I know how you feel because, to some extent, I have been feeling the same way too. I really can’t help it — so many people in my life have been talking about the potential of applying for a fellowship to disappear into a far-off mountainside for a summer, a semester or a year on a mission to discover something about life. ‘I want to take a gap year to go to South America and reflect.’ ‘I need to take spring semester off and go think by myself. Maybe in Israel.’ ‘I want to spend next fall in Italy and just … do me.’
But the more I mull over the idea, the more frustrated I become. Why is it necessary to get lost in a jungle in order to figure out what’s important in life? Am I meant to believe that a major part of my personal development can only happen in some foreign, unplanned experience that is inherently arbitrary?
Don’t get me wrong: I love the idea of spending four months hopping around an unfamiliar place with nothing more than a change of clothes and a slightly mangled passport. I just heard about a friend’s plan to get a car and drive from Tajikistan through Russia and I couldn’t be more jealous. The difference between his trip itinerary and the “Eat, Pray, Love” plan, however, is that he isn’t thinking about stumbling on some great revelation in a cold yurt.
What adds to my frustration is the notion that you can only find the opportunity for clear self-reflection away from this campus. The rationale that I often hear is that one needs to escape everyday life in order to have the necessary perspective to think well. But if I can’t stop worrying about my schedule long enough to think about life’s bigger questions here, then I’m probably not going to be able to tackle those problems while trying to avoid food poisoning abroad. And what about when I get back to the real world, to my job and apartment and errands and bills? Self-reflection shouldn’t end when my trip comes to a close, or I’ll likely find myself mired in another existential crisis before long.
I’ve realized that I need to be able to find the capacity to think about these questions here, in my ordinary life, rather than dream about the romantic notion of falling into a cold river in China and drawing a grand metaphor about the harms of physical/moral impurity.
And frankly, I can think critically about those questions here on campus, just by sitting by myself in the Beinecke and putting aside my banal concerns for a moment. I really don’t understand how the sight of a cypress in Tuscany will help me come to those conclusions. And to spend four months, six months, a year in the hills waiting for that epiphany to come — maybe I’m being naïve, but I just think life’s too short.