It was Bell’s Oberon, it always was, that sent me back to feeling sour about myself. Maybe it’s the hoppiness or the aftertaste or the way it heats your chest just from drinking it. Maybe it’s the way they make it in Kalamazoo Michigan, and I feel the nostalgia for rustbelt humility and self-deprication and sourness that I grew up with. But I felt myself growing more and more sour as I sat at the bar with an old friend, who was telling me stories that I tried concertedly to pay attention to. But I could feel the waves hit me and the undertoe pull me back into the sandy bottom of my worried throughts. I was worried about my thesis, worried about the time I wasn’t putting into it, worried about the shitty direction I saw it going in. I worried about the end of college, and what I spent college thinking about, and how I lived and hadn’t lived during my time in the desert. She asked me how I could feel this bad while I was still in college, she told me I should be feeling so glad to still be here, and that I should figure out where these bad feelings were coming from.
And as I left my friend told me what she thought was the answer: to go back. Go back into the journals that I’ve written for the last year, the last four years, the last decade, and read random bits and pieces of them. She reread her journals regularly, and I shuddered at the thought. Lying in the sandy bottom of my feelings I felt that wave hit me harder than an earthquake, and the whole water trudged up with the sediment of four years of feelings just imagining the journals I’ve been keeping. I thought of the misplaced feelings, the wrong turns and dumb directions. I thought of the lost friendships and burned bridges and missed opportunities. I thought of the wasted time and the silent walks and the lonely self-demolishing thoughts that were written in those journals, and I was upset at how sad I had been, and how much of my time was this downward spiral of losing self confidence and general negativity.
I carried these into a blog post in my head about doubt, about feelings and worry. I thought about them from the inside and the outside, with as much science as I could. I tried to trace the roots of them, analyzing every thought that passed through me with a magnifying glass to find out if the Bells’ or the thesis or the end of school was causing the problem. I thought of it like an error, like downtime in a server or general latency with a backtrace, a cause or condition that threw it off.
Maybe it didn’t have a backtrace. Maybe there wasn’t a cause or a reason besides chemistry.
Maybe I just didn’t understand it - and didn’t know myself at all.
But I did know that I didn’t have time to think about these things - I needed to pick up my coffee and get back to work for the night on the next hardest thesis task - calculating the intersection between a plane and an arbitrary triangular mesh.
So I got my coffee and sat down in the cafe in Honors Hall, next to a friend studying for his MCAT’s, planning to spend midnight to 3 am working through a problem that I couldn’t solve all day but maybe could figure out tonight.
But he looked up to me and asked how I was doing, and instead of telling him about thesis and geometry and intersections I told him I didn’t know what I was doing. That I felt like I was doing the wrong thing no matter what I was doing - simultaneously wasting my time in college and failing to finish the thesis I promised to do and losing touch with the friends I only had seventeen days left to be around.
“That’s really hard, Jake”, he said, “I know I’ve been thinking about this for a while with the MCAT. It’s kind of the sum of all of my thoughts lately, and this is what I think - we tend to think about the past with this imaginary viewpoint that we knew back then the mistakes we were making, and we should have known better or seen around it. And that’s wrong, because we’re not at all the same person we were back then, we’re so much smarter. I mean, think about it, we used to think that the dents in peoples’ heads caused their emotions. And the smartest people that were alive back then were doing research in this, and making discoveries and believing them, even though we can look back and see that it was all mumbo-jumbo. 100% mistakes that we wouldn’t have made if we had the knowledge then that we know now.”
“But we didn’t have that knowledge back then. We just thought we were doing what was best. And this is where it comes back to you - because you keep analyzing your actions with this imaginary version of yourself that’s looking back from the future and making judgements on the mistakes you’re making, and you’re already feeling regret for the things you haven’t even done yet. But you can’t regret anything, because you are always doing your best, at any given time, unless you are absolutely trying to ruin things for yourself, but I don’t feel like that’s you. Regret and fear aren’t real, they’re just feelings we feel that come from natural instincts, and you can rationalize from them until you’re completely paralyzed by fear. If you let me use an analogy, it’s like you’re the gerbil in the maze, and you’re making a bunch of mistakes and taking the wrong turns and you haven’t figured out the way out yet. But you’d be crazy to regret the wrong turns you’ve made, because you made them when that was the best possible turn to take.”
“I’d say figuring out how to spend my time is the biggest struggle of my entire life. And it’s always super hard, but the thing I’ve been thinking lately is that it comes down to choosing the things that line up with your values. Everything is the right thing to choose if you are choosing things that line up with your values, whether that’s being around friends or doing work - there’s no such thing as wasted time if you spend it doing what matters to you at the moment. I’m not a hedonist, and I’d never recommend doing something that is just ‘live for the moment’, but just think about what your values are, and that’ll be enough I think.”
I want these thoughts to be the ones I can go back to.