No one has life all figured out. Our most profound questions often seem unanswerable: How do we live well? How should we uphold our ideals? Which path will bring us wisdom? My impatient mind has raced through history searching for truth—is it in Thoreau? in Gandhi? in Seinfeld?
I forget to ask the seemingly obvious: Is the truth in me? Somewhere along the way, I was duped into believing that I could find firm answers to these questions through other people. An inspirational professor, a social activist, a Zen master or a budding love interest, perhaps. I assumed someone out there—my Sofia—understood the great mysteries of humanity, and I wanted to learn from her.
I have grown weary of being bound in Plato’s cave, unable to distinguish perception from reality. “Show me the light!” I yearn to scream out.
When I was younger, I assumed that really smart people—you know, astrophysicists, brain surgeons and the like—could not be understood. Their lexicon was so far beyond my puny, insignificant mind that the act of translation was futile. I applied this assumption to the rest of my life, and thus, when I did not understand something I generally chalked it up to my own ignorance, and not to any deficiency of the instructor’s. I was the proverbial student, incapable of challenging the establishment of knowledge. To succeed, I adapted myself to this world. I made the Honor Roll.
At some point in high school, my understanding of intelligence changed. The smartest people, to me, became those who could explain complexity in sparse, mundane language. I dismissed those whom I could not legitimately understand, attributing miscommunication to their pretentiousness or stupidity. Knowledge was no longer a static entity, unchangeable and rigid. It became malleable, transformed by its assimilation into my being. The process of understanding (light bulb—click!) changed me, and I became aware that I could change the understanding of others. But I still made the Honor Roll.
I continued to follow society’s prescription for the privileged: I went from high school to a top-10 university, although I came to Duke interested in finding truth. A well-rounded science geek, I had spent the year and a half before college working at the Hollings Cancer Center in Charleston, S.C., developing a method to quantify how physical and chemical agents damage the DNA in cancer cells. I wore an oversized lab coat with pride as I played with agar gels and ridiculously expensive bio-analytical equipment. I wedged my lab work in amidst a maelstrom of other activities—AP courses, student government, mock trial, debate, sports and community service.
Yet I was dissatisfied with the “answers” I found in my first year of college. Utopia was not possible. Truth was fuzzy. People disagreed. I chose my path based on limited information, on broad generalizations about courses of study and careers that I knew, at some level, were intended to make me feel good about my own decisions.
And all the while, I deluded myself into thinking that there was empirical truth for living. Others could still provide me with answers. I saw my peers going in different directions—more prestigious, more lucrative directions—and I thought, “What’s wrong with me?” I could no longer just make the Honor Roll and be happy; I could not silence my inner self. But I didn’t want to become the self-righteous bohemian or the judgmental, tortured artist. Besides, that would be a lie—I enjoy Sex and the City and action flicks way too much.
Still, though, I couldn’t deny my feelings of ostracism, and I didn’t yet have the courage or the wherewithal to adapt my world to me. I ignored Emerson’s advice, that “to be great is to be misunderstood.” Instead, I thought I was the problem.
More slowly, but more powerfully, my understanding of intelligence metamorphosed again. I encountered great thinkers—friends and enemies—whom I did not understand, but I neither chastised myself, nor their teachings. I began to search my being for answers, and I found only more questions. In the questions, however, I saw an inkling of the truth in me.
I started to see the limitations of the mind and of reason. I cannot persuade you, logically, of what my experience tells me to be true. But I believe that, within the understanding of my experience—the struggle to be who I am—lies the power to affect who you are.
For all I have ever had to argue is my own experience, and the measure of any philosophy must ultimately stand the test of me.
Philip Kurian is a Trinity senior.
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