I remember getting very worried during my freshman year. People seemed to care about grades and GPAs and extracurriculars an awful lot more than I did. I found myself getting stressed in spite of myself—stressing about not being stressed. I was worrying about not being worried, caring about not caring about what other people cared about. These concerns seemed the silliest of things, but for my freshman self, they were quite real. Never before had I been more conscious of other people’s notions of what success meant, and of how off I was from those measures. I didn’t want to spend hours cranking out essays that I wasn’t interested in so I could “do well.” I didn’t want to do problem sets for that reason, or anything, for that matter. To me, the notion of “doing well” just didn’t matter—not in the sense that appeared to be that of my freshman peers, at least.
At that point, and at points since, I did what any young idea-lover does. I knelt before my bookshelf, as if before an altar, and I asked the divine souls of characters and authors what I should do. With knees and ego bent, I searched the titles, looking for one that promised salvation. I knew the stories they contained, but wanted to remind myself of them, to take my mind out of my head for a while, and put another one in. I found the most beautiful of minds; those of poets and dreamers, of clairvoyants and philosophers. I spent hours with them, curled up in corners of far-off spaces, unraveling intrigue and the present tense, slowly untying their knots. But, this didn’t seem to be enough, my present never fully spoke to these writers’ pasts. No matter what wisdom their tomes conveyed, the voices of the dead and distant minds I was convening with weren’t able to speak back to me; they could only ever speak forward, toward lives and times they never lived. And I could only look back, retracing their steps to hunt for answers where they did not necessarily appear.
So at that point, and at points since, I did what any young idea-lover does, and sought out someone wiser and more well-read than I, to see what she could see. I went to office hours. I went to the office of the professor of my freshman seminar—a seminar about different modes of reading books and the world. I didn’t really have a question, more a series of worries and emotions: about how the freshman culture of thought fixated on grades and conventional pat-on-the-back success made me feel like a lonely idler in the midst of a checklist, about to be crossed out; about how far away the lives of people I knew seemed, across seas and schedules; about how learning unsettled, and about how difficult it was for me to continue thinking of myself as a me in the middle of all these thoughts and contradictions. In other words, at that point, and at points since, I’ve had what any young person, middle-aged person, or old person has had: a glaring existential crisis of perforating doubt.
My professor sat and listened to me. In my sharing of my doubts, she shared with me. I do not remember the exact words she said. And I don’t know that remembering them in the present would make them make the same sense they made to me when I heard them in that moment of the past. I know that back then, they made sense. They made sense because they spoke to me, the me that was then, and has since ceased to be.
Now, I know that the words I shared with her that day, and on days since, have made me confident that I am not alone in doubting, and that nobody ever needs to be. In the raw honesty of approaching someone with doubt worn plainly, there is a reality of openness to learning that I have been unable to find in any other situation, book, or maxim. I trust that in the simultaneity of sharing doubts, of admitting that I don’t know, and don’t like not knowing—there is the potential for connecting, a reality of living, that no book could ever encompass. I have discovered that, for me, my relationships with thoughts and people are strengthened when I see the acknowledgment of doubt. When my sister is sad, my friend is upset and confused, or my thoughts are derailed by questioning and opposition from within themselves, things really become real. Perhaps psychoanalysts would say that it has something to do with childhood and vulnerability. I’m not sure; all I’m sure of is that it’s OK not to have any answers, or even any questions.
After revealing my worries to my professor on that day in my freshman year, I am no longer afraid to share when I’m feeling alone in my thoughts, or utterly confused. She has helped to show me that emotion is necessary in learning, and that in admitting uncertainty, failure does not follow. There is a gradation to learning that cannot be graded, a succession that does not end in “success”… It is not a goal that can be reached in a moment of completion—at least, not the type of learning I’ve come to want and value, the type that forgets about grades and deadlines, stress and success. It’s the type that cannot be capped with designations, because it does not stop. It’s timeless. Tenseless. That’s why, for me, the best classes and interactions I’ve had here have been those where people speak in the true presence of one other, instead of past one another: where past and future cease to exist. In my experience, this type of interaction occurs when people really love the material they are learning, or when they aren’t worrying about their grade, when people take classes pass/fail or as electives. It’s only in the sharing of emotion in excitement, in love, in confusion, and especially in doubt that I find true simultaneity with others. It’s when I feel completely joined in experience of thought and emotion in this way, in classes, or dining halls, or office hours, that I feel what it means, not just to learn, but to be alive.
This is just what I’ve learned so far, from my mentors and my friends—what I’ve come to think from many shared moments. Doubt is not something to hide, or run away from. It’s the place from which to start. From this point, and, by the time this is read, at points since, I do what any young idea-lover does, I continue to share thoughts and time.
For there are many more ways to think, and many more things to share, no doubt.
Cherone Duggan ’14 is one of Harvard Magazine’s 2012-2013 Berta Greenwald Ledecky Undergraduate Fellows.