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Living as a work of art

staff notes

Before coming to Duke, I held a certain assumption about the college experience: I would finally be able to spend the bulk of my time doing things I actually liked, and even though I would still need to put in a lot of effort, I would be able to balance my engagements with a sense of clarity and confidence.The first part of my assumption turned out to be true. The second part I’m still trying to figure out.

After a laid back fall semester at Duke, I chose to dive more intensely into academics and career preparation in the spring. I have reaped both the reward and repercussions of doing so: I learned so much more fascinating content in the same time frame, but I found myself thrown off by the sheer amount of work and the fast pace of learning.I was cutting back on exercising and keeping in contact with friends — activities that brought me joy outside of class and work — just to meet the next deadline. 

Even though I have intrinsic interest in my academics, it’s hard not to feel like I am just going through the motions, stretching myself out with these excessive demands. I miss the days just a few months ago, when I could afford an hour every day reading books that were not assigned for a class and immersing myself in the thoughts of great thinkers and eloquent writers like Hesse and Gibran. 

Is there a right way to “handle” our time in life so that we feel we are indeed effectively working our way toward a greater goal without sacrificing physical and mental health and depriving ourselves of intellectual nourishment? How do we balance pleasure-seeking pursuits and academic demands? Arthur Schopenhauer wrote in “The Wisdom of Life” that so often in life one is either suffering from boredom or pain. Ever since I received my acceptance to Duke more than a year ago, I have been trying to get away from boredom and productivity guilt. Now with so many tasks to finish every hour of my life, I have no time to be bored but all the time to be stressed. So how can we adjust ourselves so that we are neither bored nor pained but in a so-called “flow state”? I thought I would naturally find the answers to these questions once I entered college, but at this point I have no answers. Merely more questions. 

It has been frustrating that no matter where I search and who I ask, there doesn’t seem to be a perfect solution to balancing time in college and beyond. Yet lately I am coming to terms with the reality that there is no formula for distributing all the components in life. I now view this dilemma with a new lens. The arguably most important theme in art is balance – not aesthetic appeals, not the “moral” or the “lesson-learned”. The balance of yin and yang, reality and the artist’s individual interpretation of reality, motion and stillness, sense and sensibility. Just like there is no ultimate formula for good art, there is also no ultimate formula to a balanced and well-lived life. In this sense, it is no wonder that the act of living can be likened to creating art. 

As for clarity about life that I again naively thought would be a guarantee in college, I found it helpful to remind myself of a story I heard while learning about impressionism art. A mother once took her young son to the Museum of Modern Art to view one of Monet’s water lily paintings. She first brought her son up close to the painting, so close that the painting was only one or two feet in front of them. She asked her son what he saw on the painting. He looked at the blurry and ambivalent strokes and shook his head. But as they backed farther away from the painting, at one point the son exclaimed that he could see it so clearly. It amazes me how life works the same way. In many phases of life, we don’t seem to understand what everything we do lead us toward, but upon reflection years later, we realize even the most confusing times all contributed to who we are today.

Last week, while walking by Brightleaf Square in downtown Durham, I came across a quote from Kate Bowler, a professor at Duke Divinity School and author of several bestselling books, plastered on a building: “Life is so beautiful. Life is so hard.” However difficult life is, however beautiful it can be. A good life requires years of learning, adjusting, and constant struggle. Just like good art. But rest assured that with earnest intention, the jigsaws will fall into places and it will be worth the while at the end.—Katherine Zhong, staff writer

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