Restless Life Syndrome: Experience Means More Than School

Lately I’ve been thinking about school and life and whether any of it really matters in the end. You see, if a summer spent living in Vietnam taught me anything, it taught me that you can’t become a fully formed person in a classroom and you can’t imagine how much world exists out there.

I sit here, in my comfortable Corvallis home, I sit here and I see a massive football stadium next to a sign that welcomes you to Oregon State University. At this educational institution, the first thing you see is a stadium. While not a football fan myself, I can’t decide if this is a bad thing because sports have determined the trajectory of my life. But that’s not what I want to talk about. College athletics should be celebrated, but for most, it’s a five year endeavor, if not four.

And what happens next? The corporate grind, the domestic dream, the complacent life. When we leave this college bubble–everyone, not just the student-athletes–where do we go? For most, it seems a career or more school is the next step. For me, I want to go everywhere.

Maybe I’m delusional, but I have to believe that there is more than one way to live, that a steady job with a steady income and a steady, predictable life is not my only option. Sure, if I wanted to own a car and a house, I would need to save money from said steady job, but why would I want a car or a house when I could buy plane tickets all over the world?

I want views like this forever and always.

I want views like this forever and always, even if it takes six hours to get there. (Top of Fansipan, Vietnam)

You see, sometimes I get restless; I get antsy, so I experiment and overindulge and experience because this is it, this is the one chance I get to go and do and be in the only body and mind I have. In the end, why should I fret over an exam on colonial American literature when that doesn’t excite me, when I would rather read contemporary books about race and gender and actually learn something about myself and the world I live in? I have 15 waking hours each day, why on earth would I spend even one minute on busy work?

Throughout my education, I’ve had a handful of classes that completely, profoundly blew my mind. Classes that challenged my worldview and moved me to think, deeply. If every single class I took blew my mind, I would embrace their grind because I would emerge a better human for it; I would shout to the world that college is life, that education changes everything. But each term, I’m lucky if I have just one of these classes.

It shouldn’t surprise me, then, that for the past three summers I’ve grown and matured more in that three month time frame than I do in the full nine months I sit in classes. In 2013, I listened to every Radiolab episode during my commute and spent every day working in an organic garden with three other worldly, interesting people. In 2014, I interacted with people from every corner of the world to pull off an international track meet. And in 2015, I actually went to another corner of the world and learned that abstract thinking doesn’t mean much when your main concern is to survive.

It’s great that we have brilliant people in these institutions that challenge us to think and question and analyze, but the stuff that really matters, the movements and the change this world needs, happens outside those walls. I subscribe to the belief that I can change the world, but I don’t believe I can do that armed with a degree alone.

I did not have the cliché education abroad experience; I did not live blissfully worry-free for two months, spending my days sipping coffee and my nights dancing with the locals. When I left Vietnam, I was ready to leave because it was hot and polluted and challenging, but above all I was ready for my next stop in the world. I returned to a life of running and reading and friends and even though a huge chunk of my savings was gone, my heart was full.

I want more friends like this, all over the world.

I want more friends like this, all over the world. (Some village outside of Hanoi, Vietnam)

Now, I’m three quarters through my term and I spend my procrastination time looking at plane tickets and trying to articulate my thoughts. I had a lot of time to think when I lived in an internet-less homestay for a month, and in that time I clarified my priorities; the banality of a GPA was not high on that list. I understand that many of my opportunities can be traced to privilege, but I also understand that I have an obligation to maximize my resulting potential not just as a student, but as a world citizen. Because I have set myself up to have freedom in my future, I feel empowered to take risks and go all-in for my quest to matter.

Right now, I know what I care about–I care about running and learning about the world through books and experience. I’ve learned to live obnoxiously in the present moment–perhaps being surrounded by Buddhism all summer contributed to this–so when I don’t want to write an analysis about 19th century American literature, I just don’t. I have more important things to think about, like how soon I can get to Latin America to practice my Spanish and how I can read every book on my bookshelf. I have a responsibility to live with awareness and compassion, and while that can come from those rare, mind-blowing classes, I think it’s more likely to come when I feel free to live with purpose and clarity.

I’m not practical; I’m unapologetically idealistic. But that just means that when something doesn’t matter to me, I disregard it, and when something does matter to me, I believe in it full force. In this moment, I want to sit wrapped in a blanket with acid music so loud it’s the only thing I hear while I write about my inability to invest in my classes this term. I’ll write my academic essay eventually, but only when it feels slightly more important.

For now, I’ll look out my window at that football stadium and that sign and wonder what my last two years in college can give me that dropping everything to move across the world could not. For now, that’s enough, but if I maintain my momentum, then the most conventional part of my life has already happened. And in the end, I guess it all matters, because it all brought me to now.

Hope Still Exists When All Else Fails

The world has been pretty terrible lately. You don’t have to look far in the headlines to find tragedy. The deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown–among many others–show us that racism is still blatant 50 years after the Civil Rights movement. The Taliban just killed over 140 innocent people in a Pakistani school. There is no time or place where murder at a school could ever be acceptable, and the United States is far from immune to this. Two years ago this week, a man opened fire at an elementary school in Connecticut. I don’t think I will ever come to terms with that event.

There is so much suffering and poverty and inequality and injustice in the world and I don’t know how to stop it. Every day, so many horrific things happen and I am so acutely aware of them, yet I have the audacity to continue living in my blissful daily existence. I keep trying to put into words the magnitude of these events and how much they matter, but words will not reverse the consequences that already took place. I don’t know if I can adequately express the weight of these injustices, and I don’t think my attempts to dwell on these tragedies will solve anything. Because somehow, amidst all this grief, I still have hope. I still believe above all else that the world is not doomed and that humanity can and will make life more bearable. I’m sure that many educated people would call this hope misguided or unreliable, but it’s the only thing I have.

Perhaps my ridiculously comfortable existence enables me to have this hope. This is all because I’m so lucky. Lucky I was born white. Lucky I can afford a college education. Lucky my family is stable and alive. Lucky I can type coherent thoughts. I’m so aware of my privilege, yet so oblivious to the implications. I will never know what it feels like to walk on a street with the constant worry that a police officer might mistake me for a criminal and kill me. I will never know what it feels like to live in a country where bombs and air raids could rain down at any time. I will never know what it feels like to grow up in an impoverished family in a dangerous area.

Maybe I should feel guilty about this. I don’t, but I’m aware of it and uncertain about my lack of guilt and where it leaves me. If I am happy with all these privileges I have both received and earned, what does that mean for the rest of the world? Should I just feel sorry for the Pakistanis who are affected by the Taliban’s cruelty, or am I obligated through my privilege to do something about it? And how the hell do I do something about it? Right now it seems that my only option is to be a voice. I’m so conflicted and confused about my place in the scheme of this cruel world, but the conversation has to start somewhere.

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When tragedies happen, I never know how to respond. There is nothing I can say or do that would make them less painful, and sometimes the only thing I can offer is my own sympathy. Ultimately, that does not help anyone but myself. Still, I believe that world peace is possible, and I think that a more peaceful world is likely. Coming from a human perspective, not a religious one, I must ground my hope in a faith that humanity is capable of more good than evil. That someday, we can all be at least a little more equal and a little less cruel.

I have so much I want to know and understand and think and say and feel but I don’t know where to start and I’m not convinced that I know where I’m headed at all. Maybe personal happiness is the answer. Maybe it’s love. Stephen Hawking seems to think so. The movie The Theory of Everything is less about Hawking’s scientific achievements and more about his relationships with people. If one of the most brilliant people alive recognizes the impact and influence of human relationships, perhaps we should follow his lead.

Maybe all this world needs is a little more compassion and recognition of everyone’s own humanity. If we can look into another person’s eyes and realize that behind those eyes lies a lifetime of dreams and fears and experiences, then we can begin to understand that in the end, we are all connected because we have lived. Maybe then we wouldn’t be so quick to kill.

No Trespassing: Subtle Rebellion for the Sake of Autonomy

On a recent run, I pranced through no less than three “No Trespassing” signs at the end of a dead-end country road. Desperate for dirt to escape the monotonous asphalt and charged by the early morning sunlight, I found the risk worthy, if not essential.

I knew that the dirt roads were there because I had ignored these signs many times before. In fact, in my previous escapade through the prohibited area, I returned to the normal road to find a man dressed in camouflage standing in a field holding a shotgun. I tried to stride by unnoticed, but he stopped me.

“There were three coyotes sitting up on that hill watching you,” he said.

I could not decide which unsettled me more: the man talking to me with a gun in his hand, or the image of three predators stalking me while I ran oblivious.

“The coyotes have been killing off the deer lately,” he continued. “I’m trying to get them.”

Though I despise hunting and thought the man’s attempts were likely quite illegal, I made the wise decision not to argue. Instead, I smiled politely and began to run again, wary that I had just turned my back to a gun and that, compared to a coyote, I was probably an easy target. Alas, I survived the rest of the run with no gun wounds and no trespassing violations, but I did not return to that route for a week.

This view is great, until it never changes.

This view is great, until it never changes.

When I did, I again had no qualms about the signs. Until I reached the point on the road where I could connect to another dirt road that is much less prohibited. To make that connection, I had to go past a bridge that often has construction remnants strewn about but rarely has human life present. I usually pass through that area without a problem, but this day, right before I turned the corner, I heard construction noises and voices getting closer with each step.

I darted off on a side trail, hoping it would spit me out onto the less prohibited trail that I sought. When it instead gave me a dead end, I navigated over loose rocks and scrambled up a dirt hill that did not, in fact, lead me to the trail. It took me to the area I had been avoiding all along; the area with real live people who definitely knew that there should not be a running girl emerging from the heart of their construction. So I ducked down and, in lieu of braving the rocks again, chose to bound through the knee-high grass as fast as possible because I am terrified of snakes (and I saw one on a hike the day before so clearly they were after me).

When I finally returned to that damn country road in safety, it became apparent that the lengths I took to avoid human interaction–and, likely, repercussions–were slightly ludicrous. I chose the possibility of encountering a snake or rolling an ankle over the possibility of getting in trouble with a random person I would never see again. But it also became apparent that I did all this because the ability to run on that dirt road–albeit illegally–means my own liberation.

The only thing missing here is some dirt.

The only thing missing here is a dirt trail.

Not only is it an escape from the road and a cushion for my legs, but it is a step into a path that I would guess not many brave. The “No Trespassing” rule is in place for a reason, but like many rules I find it unnecessary and intend to break it. I do not think that my running presence on a dirt road three miles outside of a small town will cause any trouble for anyone or anything, so the fact that a rusting sign can imply this irks me a bit.

I’ve never been one to thrive on excessive rules and regulations, or even societal norms for that matter. Things like school dress codes and texting games do not appear to advance civilization, so I do not prescribe to their influence. Even the obligatory greeting conversation (Person 1: “Hi, how are you?” Person 2: “Good, you?” Person 1: “Good.”) seems like a meaningless formality. These rules simply encourage people to embrace conformity and avoid intentionality in their thoughts and actions.

Even really big, really important rules are often wrong. After women could finally vote, they still could not compete in collegiate athletics or even run road races. We put way too much trust in our executives to make the right decisions and spend too little time considering their impact. I’m not advocating for anarchy here; I am simply calling for more thought about the guidelines and expectations that govern most details of our lives.

The feelings I got when I avoided that construction worker were the same I’ve had when I’ve pulled borderline all-nighters mid-season or loitered in dark parking lots until cops kindly request that we leave. Uneasy about the technical wrongness of the situation, yet thrilled that the incident will succeed without any formal consequences.

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Hay fields tend to go on forever.

There is a certain elation that accompanies getting away with something, and if it is a silly rule then this elation comes guilt-free. If you’re sneaky enough, you might even inspire others to go out and be the rule-breakers they wish to see in the world. Because civil disobedience is in.