I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we decide what’s right. I don’t necessarily mean right in the sense of truthful, factual, or accurate (although that is a truly fascinating area of philosophy that boggles my mind in the most delightful ways) — I mean more… how do we know that what we do or believe is the right thing? What is the most sensible or wisest course of action? What are the kindest, fairest, or most egalitarian policies? I guess I’m talking about those sticky areas of faith and morality, but more directly, visceral instincts that guide life decisions and beliefs.
(The photos, by the way, have basically nothing to do with this post, but I think best when surrounded by magnolias.)
In part, these questions stem from the agonizing national over-analysis of social policy brought on by what I consider fairly ridiculous Republican primary debates and alarmist responses to measures in government. I used to try not to talk about politics because I realized it would alienate people who held different beliefs – and that’s the thing. No matter how strongly I feel a sense of “this is right” and “those guys are crazy and wrong,” (most notably lately when we start talking about health care, contraception, etc.) I am trying my hardest to respect that at the end of the day we are still talking about systems of belief. I would not presume to say that one person’s religious beliefs are more valid than another’s, so why am I so comfortable blasting their political ideology? Just because I think I’m right?
With politics, I have strong beliefs about why government exists and what it should do for the people. I am deeply skeptical of underlying motivations and special interests being represented, and I can acknowledge that even when something seems clear cut and straightforward in the best interests of the common good, there is probably some aspect of it that makes other people recoil or wonder why I am so deluded. That’s okay. We can all believe different things, if our goals at least approximate one another. I’m going to resist opening this particular can of worms any further (when I do so, I’d like to do it specifically and intentionally), but I guess the gist is that I think some people can have beliefs that I find reprehensible, disgusting, and truly wrong, but they’re not necessarily bad people. Most aren’t, anyway.
So let’s move to a more personal level, since it’s all about me all the time anyway (isn’t it? don’t tell me if it’s not). How do we know that the day-to-day decisions we’re making are the right ones?
I’ll start with love because I am terrible at it. I have always believed that the way to find true love is to open your heart and your life up, to make a space where you are comfortable and sure of who you are, and see what the universe throws at you. I’ve seen that when I try to force love into the wrong space or time, it has disastrous, heart-breaking results. Similarly, when it’s with the wrong person, however much I’d like it to be the right person, I can’t change who I am to make them fit.
Almost everyone I know seems to meet their significant other online now. I went to a wedding last fall where literally every couple at my table had met online and they had even met the bride and groom online. I think that’s terrific, and I’m thrilled when it works, but something about the idea has always rubbed me the wrong way. Maybe it feels like shopping, or it seems to elicit in men my age a sense of entitlement and ego-mania. More likely, it’s because it doesn’t happen naturally, organically in the course of one’s everyday life (I feel compelled to add a disclaimer that I am only talking about my own experience and realize it can happen naturally for other people who aren’t so neurotic and obsessed with literal signs from nature and the universe). The few lackluster attempts I made at online dating were at a time when my life was in such disarray and chaos that I didn’t have time to go out and meet people. Essentially, there was so little time or space for love in my life that I was trying to force it and squeeze it into weird places on my Google Calendar. Not surprisingly, that makes for disastrous results. Who wants to wait a month between dates, or deal with someone who can’t commit emotionally because her entire heart is wrapped up in a toxic job?
When I met my boyfriend, it was an unseasonably warm sunny day. I decided to sit outside, I was relaxed and even dressed nicely (I was on my way to the ballet), so when a handsome and charming guy came over and said he’d never forgive himself if he didn’t say hello and tell me how beautiful he thought I was, everything felt natural and right. Guys hit on women on the ferry all the time, and usually it’s a somewhat awkward clenched-smile 20-minute conversation, with uncomfortable goodbyes and the realization that it’s not meant to be by Manhattan. I was surprised to find this guy so different, such a refreshingly open and warm person that I actually wanted to talk to him. He has a fascinating background (I’ll talk about him more another time) and he is literally like no one else I’ve ever known. So I mean… that feels right. It feels like there was room in my life and in my heart, and the universe pushed him into it.
When I first chose to do this degree in chemistry, it seemed like I was getting similar signs that it was the right thing to do. I stumbled into chemistry through studying art history, and I started to really fall in love with materials science and the technical analysis of art that gave insight into how artists thought and worked. I worked at my dream job at graduate assistant pay, and I slowly came to the realization that if I wanted to keep doing it, I would need to get the education and credentials of my colleagues. Unfortunately, I was working with a team full of people with PhDs in Chemistry and Physics, and when we presented our research at conferences or got it accepted for publication, I was the only author without a PhD or even a BS in a hard science.
I wasn’t sure exactly what I expected, and I’ve already exhaustively documented my floundering, flustered responses to studying chemistry here. When I feel like disparaging the experience, I say it takes beautiful and amazing, wondrous things, then ruins them by saying, “Let’s do math about it!” I promised myself this semester that I would get over my math-aversion and stop letting the nausea that sets in when I see equations ruin a good plan. I have not succeeded so far, and when I withdrew from my Calc II class, I was so full of joy I felt inclined to run down Broadway singing and twirling.
I know that there was a time when art and history seemed unfathomably hard and over-complicated to me. I can literally remember days in seventh grade when I was furious that I had to memorize so many stupid dates and names and Acts that didn’t add up to a big picture yet. Many years later, as I filled in gaps in political history with paintings, I was happy that I built that foundation and forced myself to stick with it. The politics and social history drilled in by AP Modern European History proved invaluable in understanding the mindset and machinations of European painting. Tying the dates of art projects with what was happening, knowing what skirmishes and territorial disputes were setting people on edge, gave a full, fleshed-out context from which I could really get at the art. Over all that time and to the present, I’ve been learning to draw and paint. The only reason I feel even remotely comfortable expressing myself in art is because I’ve been doing it for what feels like my entire life. I drew in the sand before I could talk or had any grasp of language or writing. I obsessively find patterns and see so much it overwhelms me, so art feels like it comes from within.
Perhaps there is such a thing as innate talents or proclivities. Perhaps in my soul, I am meant to be an artist and any attempt at other pursuits is just deluding myself. I don’t really believe that’s why I paint. I think more likely, I stuck with art because I enjoy it and consider it worthwhile. I’ve spent close to 30 years practicing and struggling with it. I’ve had whole days and weeks where I work on learning how to shade or mix colors. At this point, art is the thing I know best in the whole world, so of course it feels right.
Science – and more specifically math – has never felt completely natural to me. Actually, that’s not true. I believe every child is a scientist, exploring, gathering observations, testing ideas, and fleshing out a sense of wonder about the world. I cling to that version of science in the most sacred depths of my heart because it is the basis for much of my world view, sense of spirituality, and faith in the universe. Science in the big picture is astoundingly beautiful and exciting, and it still strikes me as some kind of wizardry.
Science in the step-by-step, tiny mathy details, confounds me. I don’t understand the terror I feel about math, and all through grade school and high school, I even did really well in it. Something happened in AP Calculus where I just stopped enjoying it and saw it as a huge chore. I didn’t use this expression back then, but my brain flashed a big “F THIS NOISE!” and checked out. I withdrew from the class and switched into the morning section of Statistics that my boyfriend was taking (and I got a 115 average, thanks to generous extra credit), realizing it was the only non-honors/AP class that I took in high school. Even though I was still planning to major in Neuroscience in college, some part of my brain was boxing out math, rapidly.
What I desperately want to believe is that the level of this chemistry degree is the walk-before-you-run phase of what could still be a fascinating pursuit. I never liked Chemistry in high school or any of the false starts I made the first few times. I found the big picture ideas amazing, but the method frustrated me because it just seemed so full of equations and drudgery. I hate stoichiometry with the type of passion I usually reserve for genocide, but then again, I was never wild about learning perspective in drawing class either. It was a chore to learn to measure human proportions in life drawing (I’m still crap at it), and it was a pain in the neck to learn by abysmal failure how not to mix paints. I’ve done tireless studies and sketches and projects over the years that I considered annoying and a waste of my time, but they added up to the ability to walk into my studio and test out whatever idea I’d like, discover things about being human and the universe in the process, and maybe make some beautiful stuff too.
What I want to feel is that chemistry – however tedious this phase – is still right. That I’m meant to do this, that these struggles are only temporary, and that I’m not totally stupid, or some aptitude will eventually kick in. That feeling seems miles away from my daily experience, and whenever I step back from the mountains of textbooks and frantic work, I ask myself, “What the hell am I doing anyway??”
Last week I went to a panel discussion by three scientists who had taken an academic/research track in their careers. They all agreed on the amazing rewards and excitement of pursuing research, as well as the common downsides (most notably grant-writing and constantly scrambling for money and opportunities). The most surprising part to me was my Advanced Biochemistry professor’s revelation that he had spent a year in art school because, “I quite liked painting.” His advisor had assured him he would hate it, that he should stick with his instinct to go into veterinary medicine (he eventually switched out of that to molecular biology research), and so on. “He was right,” my professor said laughing, “there were maybe two days where I didn’t completely hate it.”
My professor knew he was in the wrong place, and he was able to course correct and get back to where he felt he belonged. It was reassuring that he and the other two well-established researchers had all switched tacks a few times and struggled to find what they really loved, but it was also disquieting in a weird way. I was shaken by the feeling that the way my professor felt about art school is in a nutshell how I feel most days about my chemistry degree. There are glimmering moments when I am amazed and delighted, when something clicks and I get glimpses of the cleverness of the universe that things work the way they do. But most of the experience has been scrambling through lab reports with utterly loathsome dread, failing to remember equations correctly, and feeling hopelessly stupid and ill-prepared on a daily basis. When I leave campus in the afternoons, my first few breaths are accompanied by the feeling of a fist unclenching in my chest, as if I am escaping the tension of floundering, followed all too quickly by the fist closing back up as I know I have to face it all again as soon as I get home.
I want to believe the issue is confidence and poor study habits. Art and history – and generally anything in the humanities – comes very easily to me. As a consequence, I’m a terrible student. I skim through a history chapter once, and it all sticks, with fully fleshed-out details and nuances of analysis forming effortlessly. Science – and God, especially math – just doesn’t work that way for me. I haven’t figured out how to study science yet, and even when I wrack my brain and drill in everything I can imagine, I get panicky and make stupid mistakes. I forget details that I was able to make into a song the day before. When asked to do a math thing that I had literally done four hours prior, I blanked completely and didn’t even know where to begin, as if I’d never seen it before.
A very dear (and stunningly brilliant mathematician) friend said that one of the things he found so amazing about math was that the more a person did it, the markedly better that person could become at doing it in future. “It’s like sports,” he gushed, “you just have to show up at practice every day, and one day you’re dramatically better!” He enjoys problem-solving the way I enjoy drawing, and we talked about all these parallels with testing yourself to do harder problems (swim a lap faster, set a new personal best) or do them in more creative or elegant ways (grace in dancing, effortless line drawings, purity of tone in singing). It made perfect sense, and he and I concluded that I don’t have a “problem with math,” so much as a lack of experience and the accompanying lack of confidence of someone who has just stepped on a track next to Usain Bolt, wondering if her shoes are even tied.
So do I drill myself in math and relearn all the areas of chemistry where I feel stupid? Do I keep doing problems and reading and trying harder, the way I had to do years ago with history or foreign languages? I know there was a day when a passage of Lorca looked so impenetrable to me I never thought I’d be able to even read it, but years later I could still recite it back, in the middle of surprisingly fluent conversation with a friend from Argentina. Somewhere between “Me llamo Vicki” and Spanish forensic competitions, I had to learn the nuts and bolts of grammar, and I want so badly to believe it is the same case with chemistry. Is it possible to put in the right amount of practice, to develop actual discipline, and get comfortable with chemistry? Even math??
And the bigger question, which I still haven’t answered, is…. even if it is possible, is this right?
Am I banging my head against the wall trying to change my life into one that fits around math and science, when the universe knows I belong in art and history? Am I Hitler trying to make paintings, or van Gogh trying to be a preacher? (Strange and psychologically questionable parallels, sorry). Maybe I can force myself to become a chemist, to change my tendencies and inclinations… but will I enjoy it if I do? Will my whole career be one of feeling endlessly stupid and out of my depth? Will it ever feel natural, or will it always be a struggle because at heart, it isn’t right?
I know that only time will tell, but I also know that I have a history of staying in destructive situations way too long. Do I tap out, or double down? And what do I do with my life if I’m not meant to be a chemist on track toward art conservation science?
My perennial sailing metaphor relies on setting a course and sticking with it, such that every decision is made in terms of how best to sail that course. I’ve set my course, I’ve assessed the blustery areas that are throwing me off my game, but at the end, I am still left wondering if I actually want to get to the destination I chose from across the sea. As I asked in my last post, am I sacrificing the years when I could be getting married, having children, being (relatively) young and creative, to punish myself and try to do something that’s just not meant to be?
How do we ever really know what’s right?