Note: These are a few things that I wrote here and there right after June 2014 convocation. There is a thin thread that holds these together, I think – but the post as a whole is not necessarily coherent. Lastly, I see that there are some issues that I have resolved after writing these – it’s funny how quickly I change. I am definitely much happier today.
And I thought that my worst days of angst were over, left behind with super baggy pants, American Idiot and cringe-worthy love letters for my junior high muse.. But little did I expect to reach the pinnacle of my angst after my long awaited crossing of the stage to shake hands with the top dawgs of the university and be officially acknowledged as “Dongwoo Kim, Bachelor of Arts in History and Political Science.”
It was neat for a bit, when I basked in the immediate glory of finishing my last paper and not having to live in perpetual stress. Granted, I had always been a man of angst, but I had concrete challenges to look forward to during the last five years, which eased my forever-anxious heart. There were projects, internships and papers to read and write—things that made me feel as if I were achieving something, moving forward towards, well, something.
This summer has definitely been different, as I, burnt out to the core after five years of studies, had decided to take a year off—a decision that was sufficiently justified by my immediate academic fatigue, chance failure to secure enough funding for my graduate program, and a vague desire to, tsk tsk, “discover myself.” For the first while, I was pretty happy with myself and took advantage of all the free time by deliberately sleeping in and binging on Netflix crap for a concerning number of hours. Happiness was so real that I tweeted about it at least twice in the same month.
Alas, only if this happiness lasted forever. Within two weeks or so, angst started to loom silently, and eventually came to a situation in which I could no longer pretend that it is not there. Surrounded by friends who made it to elite graduate schools or scored sweet, sweet jobs with universe-saving organizations, I soon started regretting my choice to take a year off. I should have applied to more schools and funding! I should have put in more work on that application! DAMN IT. Slapped by the realities of adulthood, right in the face. Liam Gallagher lied and I can’t be whatever I want to be or live forever.
Epiphany doesn’t take place in that split of a second as we are led to believe. We tiptoe through our days with a subtle, yet clear awareness of the emotions and fears that constantly build up, waiting to turn into terrifying realizations about our tragically failed lives. We turn our heads away from these, hoping that they will magically be gone one day—but we get cornered and cornered, until—checkmate—there is nowhere else to turn and then we finally and begrudgingly acknowledge this raw, raw reality.
As such, this angst has always been there—when I stepped into my first university course, when I settled on my major, when I finished my first major term paper, always. I had just pulled over a blanket over my head to pretend that I could avoid these forever during the last five years—that things would magically be perfect at the end, as long as I worked hard on what was given to me.
I stepped forward on the generously lit stage before hundreds of people like a moth drawn to fire. I felt bliss and joy for seconds while I shook hands with important people, but these high emotions dissipated quickly as I descended towards the end of the stage—to the darkness. Then, as the photographer half-assedly clicked on his camera, in midst of these flashes—god I can’t keep my eyes open—I realized that I was forcibly and hopelessly stripped of that magic blanket, obligated to deal with these fears and terrifying realizations that I had been striving to avoid. I saw that everything I had tried to avoid, everything that I had wishfully hoped to see resolved on their own—was there, more untangled than ever in midst of the intermittent camera flashes.
I think people who have had more exposure to literature in their lives suffer greater depths of sadness and anxiety. Their imaginations unbound, they have higher expectations about their lives; they dream of lives filled with romances, grand parties and majestic adventures—in short, lives worthy of a great novel. Perhaps these grand lives come true for a select few, but most of us live through quiet desperation, tortured by a reality that does not meet the expectation. Isn’t reading supposed to guide us to happiness?
It’s never enough.
I had always thought that working hard and being a good person would lead to happiness. I was so wrong. Throughout University, though not as much as others, I pushed myself to take challenging courses, work part-time jobs and stay involved in different extra-curricular activities. Overworking myself did lead me to many great people I now call friends, as well as various opportunities and rewards.
Although I am critical about it now, I am definitely grateful for these experiences and I am not sure if I’d like it any other way—in fact, I am not sure what I could have done differently. But most definitely, overworking was my M.O. for avoiding, distracting myself from angst.
Socrates’ “know thyself” sounded wise and profound, but it also seemed as if it had lost its potency in its abuse. This phrase, however, gained newfound significance in this state of naked confusion. I mean, we grew up with the entire world yelling into our ears—these different, but sure ways to be happy and fulfilled, widely accepted by the society. Essentially, we are constantly told to change ourselves to fit into that mould of success and happiness—that there is a concrete way, a step-by-step manual to snatch that life we desire.
We can’t force ourselves into a mould of happiness created by others. I mean, we won’t ever “know” who we are completely—but if we try, if we think on it really hard, then we will probably have an idea, at least. And everything is moving so quickly—and increasingly so. Fearful and anxious, we just start running, not towards, but from something, to fit ourselves into expectations of happiness thrust upon us. If we were ever close to “knowing” ourselves, maybe we wouldn’t be so violently swayed by expectations of others.