This year I’ve worked with two professors in the late stages of their teaching careers, and, because they have each dedicated their entire careers to teaching, their lives as well. We tend to view figures like them as the embodiment of wisdom and knowledge, and the many reminders of mortality that proliferate in their lives — all the body’s big and small betrayals — heighten this effect. We can also view them as holdovers from a different time, members of the academe’s old guard, here for us to push back against and challenge. But I have to say that, above all, the most striking lesson I’ve learned from these two men has been coming to recognize the profound pleasure that they take from their work and their lives: their exemplary capacity for joy.
When English professor Harold Bloom GRD ’55 laughs at a scene read from Shakespeare, his glee runs so deep the whole room can feel it. No level of fatigue or discomfort can take this pleasure from him. Similarly, when mathematics professor Michael Frame discovers two ideas that bounce off each other in inventive and productive ways, or when he walks into a bookstore, a similar phenomenon occurs. Joy makes both of them decades younger in seconds. These moments remind me of the extraordinary potential for joy in the narrowest slivers of life, something all to easy to forget at as a 22-year-old, for whom living is relatively easy, and the difference between a good day and a bad day often trivial.
In so many things, I hesitate, I waffle, I weigh the pros and cons. Yalies can be so terribly risk-averse, and this trait presents itself in a wide range of circumstances. Often, the moments I am most joyful — a snow day, Woads, the opening of new dairy store Arethusa — are the most trivial. As my columns regularly highlight, yes, true friendship contains true profundity, but I find profound joy in the intellectual pleasures of the everyday much less regularly. Why?
Now that the sun has finally returned to the Elm City, I’ve been thinking about the word “bask:” sitting outside the Art Gallery, catching up with friends on Cross Campus, shopping at the farmers’ market. To find joy in something requires a willingness to soak it in, to appreciate the time it takes. These two professors’ capacity for basking in an experience gives them the ability to take such deep pleasure in such small moments. I am trying to be a better basker, to find pleasure in smaller and quieter activities and routines. When a day or a week seems structured by a checklist rather than blocks of time, the greatest satisfaction stems from accomplishment, from having less to do rather than doing any particular thing.
My roommate aggressively warned against mentioning both my thesis and even the idea of a thesis in this column, but here it can’t be helped. To be sure, I basked in the moment I turned in my thesis, but that’s not the point I’d like to make here. Instead, I return to a moment a few weeks ago when I found a journal entry in an archive that altered the direction of my paper slightly but significantly. In that moment, I was reminded of the glee that Frame and Bloom share, of the pleasure of catching a partial glimpse of an idea fully formed in the mind of another, of the joy of discovery. I basked in the passage, reading and rereading. Still, I don’t think I would have felt the same had I found the words simply printed in a book — a more ordinary pleasure could not suffice, but I’m working on it.
I won’t graduate college with knowledge that extends decades beyond my experience, but in this one sense I hope to have grown just the smallest bit wiser beyond my years.
Caroline Sydney is a senior in Silliman College. Her column usually runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .