Ruminations

As I was failing to get to sleep I couldn’t help but ruminate on memories of my last year in university. I failed monumentally during my final year and my dissertation was basically just a rambling document about why I didn’t do my actual dissertation work. That was not what I was ruminating about, instead I was remembering one of the modules I took that year: Quantum Information Theory.

In my entire educational career, from the first day I started school when I was 4 years old, to the day I graduated university, Quantum Information Theory was the only course I took which challenged me intellectually. Don’t think I am saying that to brag, I don’t think education really challenges many people intellectually. I was challenged greatly (perhaps beyond my capacities) when it comes to things like time management, reward deferment, patience, attention and other things of that ilk. Those things are in many ways far more important for daily life. Still it makes me sad that only once did I experience genuinely intellectually challenging work.

And what an experience! For most of school up until I was 14 or 15 I was genuinely under the impression that teachers asked questions in class in order to test you, or from my perspective, to give an opportunity to show off how I already knew the answers before we were told. It used to aggravate me that teachers told us the answers shortly before asking the questions, “how would they know” I thought “that I already know!” At some point I twigged the point of the exercise was to improve recall not to give me an opportunity to show off, but that I realised so late is I think tragic evidence I was not half as clever as I thought.

Likewise in university, even if I knew it wasn’t the point I spent the first year focusing all my energy on showing off. Once I felt sure everyone knew I was smart, I felt confident to slack off, my goals achieved – especially with the increasing workload and my general lack of self discipline in the face of such things. As such my grades predictably declined.

Quantum Information Theory was the one thing that broke the pattern. My grades were not great in Quantum Information Theory, because it genuinely stretched me to the point where it was hard. Not because it had so much tedious busy work, not because I had poor time management skills and left my projects till the last minute, but because the material made my brain have to actually work for the answers – they didn’t pop into my head immediately, the logic didn’t seem self evident as soon as I looked it up. I got what you could call a C in that class and I worked for that C. Because I had not got previous exposure to the level of mathematics required for the course I had some private sessions with the lecturer where he went through things with me (beautiful things about complex numbers and circles that I wish I could explain!) – and for a moment or two I felt like I understood, but it took effort, actual mental effort on my part.

That had never happened before, it has never happened since, but I loved that feeling, of slowly coming to grasp something, of reward in the face of struggle.

Now it makes me sad. I wonder if I will ever have that again. I wonder if anything in life can top – on an intellectual level – taking Quantum Information Theory in my fail laden final year. I am sure I will have higher emotional, social, probably even creative heights. But the joy of writing my first real proofs? Of understanding (however briefly) weird and wonderful things about numbers? Of struggling to understand something ever after it has been explained – but finally getting it? Those joys topped the joy of showing off a million fold.

After taking that course I dreamed of one day writing my own quantum algorithms, which of course seems laughable now. It would make as much sense for someone to use a quantum algorithm I wrote as to use a 4 year old who just learned to add up as their accountant. Quantum Information Theory was just on the cusp of my capacity, and it clearly wasn’t even completely that because I only got a C.

But I love that C more than any A I have ever been given, because I earned it.

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The Evolution of Teenage Angst

When I was a teenager I assumed I would no longer feel teenage angst once I was older. This assumption was completely wrong. I still feel that mixture of fear, self-abasement, sadness, anger and helplessness I associate with being a teenager – but two things have changed.

Firstly I no longer find the feeling “interesting” – because it is not interesting I do not, as I did when I was a teenager, wallow in it and try and drag it out to get every last bit out of it. I try and move on as soon as another less uncomfortable feeling suggests itself to me.

Secondly even when I cannot escape the feeling I am less alarmed and overwhelmed by it. I feel bad, I feel worthless and insignificant, I feel powerless and angry, I feel uncompetitive and weak – and that’s just how I feel. It is not the end of the world, it doesn’t mean life isn’t worth living, it doesn’t mean I am “depressed” or have something wrong with me or that I am in any way different from everyone else for feeling that way. It feels shitty, and there are flecks of reality in the exaggerated feeling, but ultimately it will pass and other more pleasurable feelings will take it’s place that make life overall entirely worth it.

Both of these changes are ultimately down to familiarity – twenty something (almost thirty something!) angst is the boredom that remains when angst has become familiar. When panic and hope have both lost their energy and been replaced by patient humour with oneself, and hopefully also with others.

Coming to terms with mediocrity

When I look up “accepting mediocrity” I get a whole host of videos and articles about how we shouldn’t accept mediocrity. Society wants us to be strivers after that carrot on the stick hanging down in front of us because frankly that’s what keeps the economy going. From a personal mental health point of view though I think the very best thing anyone, and I mean anyone, can do is accept their own mediocrity. Even people that you or I would deem far from mediocre would be better off because ultimately, there is always someone better than you, if not living, then somewhere in history, and if you are always comparing yourself to some idealised vision of who you think you ought to be, if you’re always visualising your “perfect self, right now” you are never going to come to terms with the basic reality that you are human. You are limited. You are weak and fragile. You are vulnerable. You are small.

Those things will always be true, no amount of ambition will allow us to run away from death, from weakness, from faliure, from humiliation, from vulnerability. It will catch up with us, find us, and eventually drag us down to hades.

Every choice you have ever made, and every choice you will ever make will close off a thousand paths, beautiful and wonderful paths that would have been a delight to explore. There will always be more you don’t know than you do. There will always be peaks higher than you can climb. There will always be the spectre of death, and too little time. There will always be shame and pain, and the shame and the pain will be but a reflection of greater shame and pain that was not directly experienced.

There are many billions of other people, just like you, weak, beautiful humans, struggling to get by. And the big lie, the big myth is that because your struggle is not harder than theirs, because your intellect is not greater, because your dreams and your accomplishments do not stand out in any way, that your (and their) struggle, pain, joy, accomplishments, dreams, intellect is somehow diminished by the noise of the seething mass of which it forms a tiny part. Nothing could be further from the truth.

You and I are drops in a tumultuous ocean, and we have no power over the currents or where they take us, and as terrible as this is, it is also liberating and beautiful. We can fight for a measure of control, lie to ourselves and insist that we can make a difference, that we can swim against the tide, as if the motion of a single droplet was a microcosm not a micro-climate.

You are nothing. I am nothing. We are everything (which is nothing much). We find ourselves in connection, but even that is just a diversion, a refreshing breeze in the terrifying awareness of insignificance.

Its ok. It will be ok.