Passive Activity

I was sitting by myself in Paresky at lunch today when I started thinking about what I do when I’m not doing anything. When I’m eating by myself in particular, I feel rather self-conscious when I’m not doing something other than eating, when I’m not doing another passive activity at the same time. Typically taking the form of listening to music, working on schoolwork/readings for class, or being on my phone in general, I think most people feel a similar impulse to be doing something at all times. It honestly felt great for me to put my phone and books away for 20 minutes and just sit there, hum a tune, watch the rest of the bustling world around me.

I’m sure technology and “those darn phones” play their roles in this constant need for stimulation and activity. I bet another factor is the fact that we live in the place where we work basically all the time at Williams. There’s not much geographic separation between our school-business and the rest of our lives. There’s also, of course, the social expectation that we’re always at least thinking about our work. We have a reputation to live up to, after all!

I certainly don’t want to shame people with this post, and I don’t even necessarily want to argue that being on your phone isn’t a valuable use of down time, but I do want to impress that I think that noticing what your default passive activities are can be a really good way to start developing better habits and figuring out how you want to spend your time.

For instance, over the summer I decided I wanted to read more books, and so I started replacing other passive activities with reading. Instead of needing to sit down for 20-page sessions at a time, I’d just read a couple pages whenever I was between doing other things. It worked really well: I got through several great books over the summer, and I remembered what was going on in these books much better, since I was spending time with them more often. Back at school, unfortunately my leisure reading has largely fallen off, but I’ve started a new habit of going to the Music Center during study breaks and playing piano, something that I’m not seeking any particular end goal with, but just doing for the fun of it. Ultimately, I think a lot of our days can be sucked up into time that we would prefer/find more fulfilling to spend in different ways, and so the first step to carpeing the heck out of your diems is to take a look at what you’re doing when you’re not doing anything.

The Depth of Human Experience

***NOTE: I was partially inspired to put this post together after finishing the excellent anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion. To say any more would involve spoilers, but what I talk about here is a major theme of the show, so if you’re interested in what you read, definitely check it out!***

On our “About The Blog” page, some brilliant friend of Grace’s is quoted: “Don’t you think there’s a lot to us all?” I absolutely think so, and I’ve been spending some time this summer thinking about just how much that is. And the more I think about it, the more staggeringly vast individual consciousness and experience seems to me! We each have a universe inside of our heads. There is so, so much going on constantly within us, that often can’t be seen by others around us. I definitely think we overestimate the extent to which we can understand or be understood by others, just because our experience of ourselves is so so much deeper than what can be projected in a typical social setting.

Is it any wonder that giving advice is so hard, when every person’s individual experience is so unique? Is it any wonder that intimacy is so hard when only a tiny tip of the iceberg of a person’s soul is bared to anyone outside of themselves at a given time? Is it any wonder that everyone feels insecure or unconfident sometimes when that tip is usually the best our superego has to offer, and we’re all too aware of what else lies hidden underneath?

Thinking this way probably isn’t actually going to change my interactions with others all that much, but I definitely think there are real insights to be made by considering the rich, complex, and subjective worlds that each person has all to themselves.

Nostalgia

It’s a strange emotion. Nostalgia is basically bittersweet by definition: simultaneously a happy remembrance of “the good ol’ days” and a wistful yearning to return to the simplicity and peace of those times. I’ve never really thought too deeply into the experience of nostalgia before, but now that I’m back home, surrounded by faces I haven’t seen in a year and running through a village I’ve made lots of memories in, I’ve been struck by how odd the mind’s rose-tinted recollections of the times gone by are. After all, it wasn’t as if I actually had no problems back then! People always have anxieties and insecurities, and many of those that I had then I still do today! I bet nostalgia’s existence is directly tied in to the natural human fear of change. It’s the mind telling you, “remember how great things have been? You don’t want to lose what you have, do you?” I’ve been doing my best to take such impulses with a grain of salt, and being excited about the future as well as content with the past. The times I’ve had have been great, but I’m looking forward to making the times to come even better!

27 Emotions, Tons of Gifs

I know you all need an extra source of distraction during finals period, so here you go! This is an interactive map of the 27 basic emotional states, as devised by scientists at UC Berkeley. There are hundreds of gifs and videos included, that appear when you scroll over them and which will make you feel the entire spectrum of emotions! The map captures well how different emotions blend into one another, and how viscerally certain things can make us feel one way or another. I’ve had a lot of fun with it, so check it out for yourself!

In Praise of Unnecessary Knowledge

A few days ago, I started a new daily habit of writing a fun fact on the whiteboard on the door to my room. These facts aren’t things I learn in class. They aren’t “life hacks” or inspirational quotes. They are true facts about things that have happened in the past or about the way things are, and they are completely inconsequential, of no practical use to anyone. And that’s why they’re great!

Learning is not something that should always be a chore. Discovering more about the world around us should be fun and awe-inspiring! I want to do my part to kindle the joy of discovery in people around me, and in myself too. Fun facts, trivia, unnecessary knowledge are perfect for such inspiration. They don’t carry any responsibility with them. You don’t need to act upon them, you don’t even need to remember them! You just need to enjoy them and appreciate knowing something more about the fascinating world we live in.

Beethoven and Greene

I’m someone who has always loved hearing and learning stories, and ever since I was young, many of my favorite songs have been those with distinct, unique stories embedded in them. For me, the depth and coherence of a narrative structure can combine beautifully with the emotional and aesthetic intensity of music to create masterpieces of art. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that one of my favorite bands, Twiddle, has many songs that tell vivid stories to the listeners and feature a wide cast of iconic characters.

“Beethoven and Greene,” however, doesn’t have characters of its own, but instead is about stories in general and about how we are each the protagonists of our own life stories. As the song progresses, the lyrics bring the listener through the archetypal hero’s journey, while the structure mirrors a traditionally told story, repeated through generations.

Instead of creating a character of their own for “Beethoven and Greene,” Twiddle instead tells a story about “you.” In doing so, they make the hero’s journey more real and universal for listeners, as something that everyone can experience. This universality is also noticeable in the rather general, almost cliche aspects of adventure laid out in the song: leaving home on a train, a magic incantation, a gate that must be opened, and most centrally, the potion that grants the drinker their true self and best life. The potion, as the central focus of the song, represents everything that we hope to gain from the adventures of our lives: happiness, wisdom, purity, confidence, etc.

Aside from the hero’s journey nature of the lyrics, other elements of “Beethoven and Greene” suggest to me a story being told time and time again, undergoing changes but still suggesting the same universal truth of a quest towards betterment. Listening to the song for the first time, it’s unlikely that the listener will catch all of the details and specifics of the story, but will still be able to recognize its main theme and plot. This is especially true in for the first chorus. It’s dense and complex, and not easily sung along to, but in the first few listens I was still able to pick out “….all your past doubts….wake up and hope….a little sunshine….pick up and go,” where the pace slows down at the end of each line. This is just like when you’re being told a story by someone: many of the details are lost, but certain words, phrases, punchlines are remembered, along with the general theme and message of the story. When you then tell the story to someone else, you’ll likely add your own flair and details of your own, changing the story while keeping some core constant.

The second chorus comes into play here. It’s the easiest part of the lyrics to understand and learn, and thus takes the role of the core of the story. Even it is not immune to being changed, since the melody of the chorus is changed after it is sung once and this original melody is never repeated, but after the lengthy instrumental section, which I take to be a jump forward through time, it is all that remains of the lyrics, as the core of the story is carried into the future.

I could go on, there’s so much to this song, but this post has become a behemoth as is, so I’ll leave the rest for you to discover as you enter Beethoven and Greene!

Liberal Arts

Division III knows the world is made of numbers.

Division II knows the world is made of ideas.

Division I knows the world is made of stories.

And they are all correct. The great privilege of a liberal arts education is being able to learn what all of these different ways of looking at the world have to offer. We can explore around and between the regions of human experience and knowledge that are often sharply divided and forcibly separated.

“Depth and Breadth” is the slogan that’s often used. Depth is fantastically challenging and rewarding. Depth is when you travel to the frontiers of human knowledge, and join the noble quest to expand them further, to map new territory and bring back the treasures you discover. However, I’ve been even more gratified so far by what I’ve gotten from Breadth. For Breadth is (to carry on the metaphor) a weaving, winding, wandering journey through the very heartlands of humanity. With Breadth you strive not to the frontiers and fringes of knowledge, but towards the center, the hub around which the great mental landscape revolves. This turns out to also be a difficult journey, though for different reasons, and is one that is arguably even more valuable than that of Depth.

Anyway, I’m writing this post to remind myself that, despite how difficult or trivial our journeys through academia might sometimes seem, it’s absolutely worthwhile for the discoveries that will be made, and for the people that we will become in the process.

“To play so as to be relaxed and refreshed for work is not to play, and no work is well and finely done unless it, too, is a form of play.”–Alan Watts

Interactive Learning on the Internet

It’s always fun to find a satisfying time-waster or quick game on the internet. It’s also always fun to stumble upon a website that explains complex topics or theories in an easily-understood or creative manner. Recently, I found both of these on Nicky Case’s website, which is chock full of cute, fun, fascinating, interactive learning animations! I’d definitely recommend using some procrastination time to check out The Evolution of Trust, the lesson that originally brought me to the site. I’ve since checked out a few of the others, and they’ve all been super interesting. Start out here for a nice, quick one, but tread carefully with this one, I got a little scarred…. Anyway, check out this website and do some positive procrastination!

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