Personal Statement: A bug in amber
One year ago, I wrote myself a short essay on the day I flew back to Michigan. In it, I wrote, “I don’t know how I can slow time down. Because I want to appreciate every moment. But each one just seems to slip away, until talking about it becomes more tangible than actually having lived it sometimes.”
My anxiety about the passage of time set the tone for my year, and it all came to a head during our second semester. I wasn’t in a great place. I wrote a personal statement about it, and its title was, I kid you not, “Disappointment.” Fittingly, it was depressing as heck.
I talked about “mortality salience” — or the awareness that we are all going to die some day. I, then a 19-year-old sophomore in college, wrote about fearing death. It was pretty morbid. That fear made me question everything.
You’d think it would’ve given me the motivation to go out and “appreciate every moment.” It didn’t. The work I didn’t like, I couldn’t find value in, and subsequently, I couldn’t find the drive to complete some of it. I stayed in bed sometimes to avoid it all. I didn’t understand why I, a capable, intelligent, able-bodied guy, couldn’t just hunker down and bear it. My friends and family tried to understand and help me find a solution. None of it worked.
Death is scary — and so is depression. They’re scary because they’re unknown. Because they’re hard to talk about. Because we don’t know when they’re going to hit.
Death in particular is scary because we simply don’t know when “the end” is going to come, and as a result, there’s this intangible and, frankly, insurmountable pressure to make the most of every day — whatever the hell that means.
And that’s why the one-two punch of Pixar’s "Inside Out" and Kurt Vonnegut’s "Slaughterhouse-Five" helped me learn to tread water again.
“Well yeah … I’m sad, but at the same time I’m really happy that something could make me feel that sad. It’s like, it makes me feel alive, you know? It makes me feel human. And the only way I could feel this sad now is if I felt something really good before. So I have to take the bad with the good, so I guess what I’m feeling is like a beautiful sadness.”
That’s a quote from "South Park," courtesy of Butters. And it epitomizes one of my main takeaways from "Inside Out." The moral here is that there is no happiness without sadness, and vice versa. The contrast between them is how we recognize them individually in the first place.
"Inside Out" follows an 11-year-old girl, Riley, whose family moves from an ideal little town in Minnesota, where Riley has developed wonderful, “joyful” memories and made all of her closest friends, to San Francisco.
The resulting adventure, which I won’t go into detail describing here, leads to a core change in Riley’s emotional structure. Whereas at the film’s start her memories are defined by a single emotion out of five choices — joy, sadness, anger, disgust and fear — by its end, each of her memories is an amalgam of sentiments. Some are happy and sad. Some are angry and disgusted. I won’t exhaust all of the possible combinations here, as I assume you get the point.
One conclusion, then, among others, is not only that it’s “OK” to be sad, but it’s necessary. Emotions contextualize each other. So, if you’ve never been sad, you can’t truly understand what it means to be happy. That’s part one.
Part two involves “Slaughterhouse-Five” and my introduction to the strange alien world of Tralfamadore. The novel centers on a World War II veteran, Billy Pilgrim, who constantly feels as if he is “coming unstuck” in time. He bounces from moment to moment — some traumatic, some beautiful, some delusional and others that fall everywhere else on the possible spectrum.
The relevance of Tralfamadore is that Billy discovers his ability to “come unstuck,” he claims, after being kidnapped by aliens and held on their planet. Later, one of these aliens explains the concept of time to Billy in a manner contrary to our “human” understanding of it as definitively chronological, with a beginning and an end.
"I am a Tralfamadorian, seeing all time as you might see a stretch of the Rocky Mountains. All time is all time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is. Take it moment by moment, and you will find that we are all, as I've said before, bugs in amber."
Reading that was cause for a personal perspective check. Could it be that memories are really freestanding, that we are “bugs in amber," that there is no such thing as a beginning or an end — just being?
I still believe in the finite nature of existence. And I don’t necessarily agree with the “predetermination” vibe that the above excerpt gives off. The element of Tralfamadorian existence that I isolate and hold dear is that, when 11:59 p.m. becomes 12 a.m., the “next day” begins, and I wonder why I’m not in bed with a book instead of starting an economics brief, the “previous day” isn’t really over. It’s still there, it shouldn’t be seen as a sunk cost, and it certainly doesn’t have to be forgotten. It continues to exist, and maybe it always did in the first place.
I think I give myself a lot of grief for the things I didn’t do. For not having tried hard enough sometimes. For not, as I put it the last day before my sophomore year, “appreciating every moment.”
I think what I’ve come to accept then, is that everyone, in retrospect, can claim they had a capacity for more. Only in hindsight is it possible to target our shortcomings. The thing that’s impossible to recognize is, at the time, you were giving it your all, even when it didn’t feel like it. There is only one solution to this problem: as we identify faults in our habits, we must endeavor to move forward and grow. And falling down is crucial to that process.
At times, I managed to mask the weight of my fogginess well. At others, I didn’t. But admitting that now is how I’m beginning to move forward and grow. My newfound Tralfamadorian take on the passage of time has helped with that. It’s taken the pressure off a little bit. Think on this: for every freestanding moment in the doldrums, there’s another freestanding moment at the peak. Maybe you’ve experienced it already. Maybe you haven’t. But all of those moments exist.
And none of those moments have to ever end. That’s the benefit of allowing yourself to be “unstuck in time.” Together, those moments are beautiful. They complement each other; they contextualize each other.
And there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s OK to be foggy. Just remember that we’re all equipped with a pair of strong headlights.