This morning I woke up anxious with the weight of an upcoming decision. Just as I was getting lost in the rabbit hole of counterfactual universes, wherein the choice I make about whether to take a statistics course or a humanities course completely alters my life outcome, my mind was derailed to an email my friend and pastor from Montana, Shad Durgan, sent to me on March 3, 2016.
RE: Hello From Livingston
“…..Somewhere (in sin I think) we lose what it means to be human. Everything tells us we are not human. “You can go change the world. Follow your dreams, you can be whatever you want to be”…..But the reality is that to be human means to be rooted in limits. I can only be in one place at one time. I can influence that one place at one time, but if I try to be everywhere I am nowhere…..A choice to do something means a choice not to do something.…You will make choices as you grow that will limit you. And that’s a good thing. Maybe if we want to be most human we should choose those things that limit us the most. (Don’t take that last sentence too far, like, don’t choose jail.)”
This whole situation – the rabbit hole of counterfactual universes and a good, healthy dose of existential angst – came upon me last night in the basement of the Regenstein Library (which incidentally, Shad, bears remarkable resemblance to a penal institution). It was 10:00pm on a Tuesday evening, and I was trying to teach myself how to use STATA, a statistical software. I was not doing this for fun (as you may have imagined). I was doing this because I thought I wanted to minor in statistics. Because I was under the impression that minoring in statistics is what a smart, successful person should do.
Several hours of googling “How to perform ________ command in STATA” for every question on the handout had left me feeling, well, pretty gross. You know the kind of cloud that comes over you when you can’t do something? Thoughts of “I’m no good at this,” turn into thoughts of “I’m no good at anything” turn into thoughts of “What is my place in the world and does God really exist?” I hadn’t yet advanced to the final stage of this triad when time came to leave the library, but I was quite close. Thankfully, I did not exit the building alone, but with my better half, who graciously offered to walk me and my existential angst back through the dark and the rain to my dormitory.
“Why do you want to minor in statistics, again?” he asked, clearly puzzled by the demeanor in which my homework assignment had put me. I paused. What a simple question. What a difficult question. “Because I feel like I should,” I told him. Another pause.
I was listening to a great Freakonomics podcast once entitled, “The Upside of Quitting.” It argues that the most successful people in life are the ones who are able to realize when they are bad at something, and then to quit. I didn’t particularly like the message when I first listened to it, as I have always been the type of person who takes pride in my grit and tenacity. Something’s difficult? You’re no good at it? Great. Try harder.
Generally, this is a good an admirable quality.
But not when our grit and tenacity grow to the point where we lose what it is to be human. To be rooted in limits. We may fight our way through a difficult road and perhaps come out alive on the other side, but reaching the end intact does not mean that the road was ever ours to walk in the first place. I could have stayed in that statistics class, finished the minor, and been able to proudly boast for the rest of my life that I am really good at googling commands for STATA. But all of the energy I would have invested into walking that road, for which I have not the proper shoes, physique, or will to traverse, would have been taken away from doing what I love: from writing, and reading, and thinking about things I can’t look up in a t-table.
So thank you, Shad Durgan, my better half, and my friends at Freakonomics, for reminding me that I am defined by my limits. Sometimes, I am what I do. Sometimes, I am what I don’t.
Oh, how exhausting it is to be human.