Si fueras un animal, que animal serías?”

“If you were an animal, what animal would you be?” my GSI in Spanish 232 asked the class.

Because I take questions like this seriously, I thought it was a bit unfair that he was expecting us to answer with such a limited vocabulary. On an average day, I would struggle with this question in English. On a good day, I could name only a handful of animals in Spanish. As we went around the room, cats and dogs had already been picked a few times apiece, and while I liked dogs more, I could relate better emotionally to cats. I could not make myself pick either.

Un pato,” I answered. A duck. In the middle of Spanish class, I had quacked (bad puns make the world a little better). My teacher arched his brow, questioning my answer, my sanity.

Si,” I replied.  

I breathed. I needed the oxygen. Who had I become in my life if I was now best compared to a duck? What were the redeeming qualities of a duck, anyway? They have waterproof feathers and walk in a pseudo-graceful dance. Their babies are cute, but most babies are rather ordinary that way. Ducks are not exactly fierce and beautiful dwellers of wild habitats. They are also, I quote from a friend, “rather messy and did not make a good house pet.”

I spent my weekend thinking about ducks. I carved one into a pumpkin Friday night, drew cartoons of them into the margins of my anthropology notes. Ducks trailed behind me as I wove through the tables in the dining hall, and their webbed toes stepped into puddles after my rain boots did. Though I did not yet know the reason, I had to believe there were more worthwhile attributes of ducks.

According to the unreliable Internet, ducks seem to represent everything from freedom to upcoming life transitions. As diverse as the results were, adaptability was a common theme. Through my irritation at the inconclusive symbolism, I realized this searching for an answer was more than glossy green birds or plastic yellow bath toys. This was about why my feeling of self-worth now depended on the worthiness of ducks to be at the forefront of my mind. 

Lately, I have been incessantly evaluating myself. Needless to say, I did not pass my own judgment in the “uses time effectively” category. Time, now that I admit it, was at the root of all of my self-appointed problems. I spend too much time reading. I call my mom way too often. I sleep later than I should. I did not fully take advantage of a beautiful October. Time is not to be wasted.

As these thoughts began to invade my everyday, my skepticism of larger life choices also became more prevalent. Why am I studying English and anthropology? As of now, I have no clue where that will get me in life. Am I wasting four years? What makes what I am doing worthwhile? Once one questions the very decisions that make them who they are, one finds themself stumbling further — what makes any attribute or activity more worthwhile than another?

Worthwhile (adjective): such as to repay one’s time, attention, interest, work, trouble, etc. (Thanks, dictionary.com.)

Lately I have been so afraid of time, I have been trying to use the dictionary in an effort to achieve precision of language. (I have read Lois Lowry’s “The Giver,” where they refrain from using words like love, yet still I continue.) However, this activity is extremely harmful to me because I do not spend enough time talking as it is. I do not need to focus on clipping the hedges around what I say. In fact, I think I need to water them. (I do not garden.) Which brings me back to the definition of worthwhile — when does what I say become or cease to be worthwhile? There is neither specific measurement nor unit to measure in. The broadness of the definition allows nearly all possibilities, seemingly forcing me to create my own definition.

After discussing my semi-crisis with a friend— from ducks to being worthwhile — she told me that to her, “worthwhile” means it helps you to better understand the world. Mathematicians have numbers, scientists have theories, and writers have words. Whatever gets us through the day, it seems, is worthwhile. By this I mean that we (though there are exceptions) feel happier when we think we understand what is going on around us, even if this understanding does not have a direct transition into any tangible “worth.”

“Worthwhile” is a dark pond we feel brave just for dipping our toes into. That said, how do we decide when we are deep enough into the water? We must just go with our gut feeling, I suppose.

Through all of the doubts, I have concluded only this: If we are doing something, somewhere along the way we must have already decided it to be worthwhile.

We might ask ourselves then: What is worthwhile about reading a column about ducks?

Payton Luokkala can be reached at payluokk@umich.edu.

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