Friday, March 11, 2016

Reaching Out to a Fellow Blogger

I've been reading an outstanding blog by a very smart young man for several years. He majors in physics at a Midwestern university and is wrapping up his coursework there while hoping to be admitted for postgraduate work to a top tier school such as MIT to complete his PhD in theoretical physics with a specialization in cosmology.

But, over the years, he's blogged brilliantly not only about his intense interest in theoretical physics and cosmology but also about areas and issues in philosophy, politics, religion, economics, international news, society and culture, and so on in addition to addressing very personal issues concerning his recurring bouts of depression and enduring alienation from mainstream society.

In his most recent blogpost, he expresses extreme displeasure over having to take humanities courses he despises--because they focus on rote memorization of trivial names, places, dates, and research paper style formats--and needing to earn A's in them so that he can maintain his perfect 4.0 GPA in order to have any chance of being accepted by a school like MIT, and he worries that if he isn't admitted to one of these preeminent universities, his hopes and dreams of contributing something of scientific substance to the world will be all but dashed, and, as soon as he can earn enough money from a second-rate teaching job at a second-rate college, he'll just want to melt away into the wilderness and be a hermit for the rest of his miserable life.

I feel saddened by this bright young man's reclusiveness and depressive outlook and wish that there were something I could do to help him. But then I'm in no position to help anyone grappling with challenges not so dissimilar in some respects to ones that have plagued and seemingly gotten the best of me for most of my life. However, I couldn't read his blogpost without trying to do something, and so I wrote the following comment on his blog. I hope it helps at least in some small measure.

I am very concerned about your proneness to depression, your disdain for ordinary human interaction, and your belief that if you can’t make it into MIT or its lofty equivalent, you essentially have nothing left to live for except being a disillusioned drone eking out a living until you can retire as a hermit living aimlessly in the wilderness.
And I say this as someone who, although he lacks your obvious brilliance in math and science, has always felt at odds with society and uncomfortable with much of what passes for socialization.
But, in my case, I’ve long been interested in many disciplines and issues, aided and abetted by my increasing appreciation of the interconnectedness of all phenomena and of all disciplines that study these phenomena, so that I’ve come to regard almost no academic subject as boring or worthless, and almost all learning, whether curricular or extracurricular, as potentially illuminating and enriching.
I won’t deny that I share your aversion to grinding, rote memorization of dates and places, but I’m guessing that there are other aspects of your humanities courses that are or at least could be fascinating to an open and curious mind, and that gifted and accomplished theoretical physicists from Einstein and Oppenheimer in the past to Ed Witten today have opened their minds and interest to disciplines and subjects far outside their own discipline and have probably been the happier for it.
Moreover, while I too prefer to discuss subjects and issues that most people would probably prefer to pass up in favor of “small” talk about their jobs, their families, their favorite sports team, or the latest insult from some politician or gossip about some celebrity, I have learned to take more pleasure in the company of others by looking for and appreciating the beauty that lies in almost everyone whether they’re talking about the sacred or the profane, the profound or the mundane.
I hope you make it into MIT and get to do the kind of work there that you heart longs to do, but I also hope that, whether you do or don’t, you’ll find life to be richer and more fulfilling than you seem to now, and that other people from all walks of life and levels of intelligence will come to occupy a more vital and pleasurable part of your life than they seem to now.In the meantime, I hope you keep on blogging about yourself and your experiences inside and outside academia, because your blog has been one of my longtime favorites, and it’s been a real pleasure to get to know you as well as I’d like to think I’ve come to know you and your beautiful search for truth.

What would you say to this young man if you could?

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