Normal blog post at the bottom of this essay.
The more things change, the more they stay the same—or, I suppose, that is the claim that is oft-made about the way the world works. I am not so sure I believe this to be true, in the general sense; I think I have found that, as time has gone on, I have grown significantly, and life truly has gotten better for me, since those formative days in high school where I first came to terms with the fact that not everyone had the same darkness in their hearts. In many ways, I live peacefully with the darkness now; I pull together my forces when the moment strikes, and I know in every single moment of doubt that I will get through this, time and time again, solely because I have done it before. In some ways, the thing that has kept me alive for so long is a willingness to say to myself that “things will be okay” until I actually believe it.
Yet, I once again find myself grappling with items on my list of beliefs I thought I had checked off. I do believe that, in many ways, these re-visits to old ideas is a form of growth, as perhaps I might discuss later in this piece. On the other hand, they bring up old pains and remove the scabs from wounds that never truly healed. The thesis, I suppose, is still true in a sense, then. Things can change, but sometimes you end up back where you started—and that’s okay.
Enough, however, with this 30,000-foot view of the argument. Let us dive into the trenches of the matter, and perform our discussion there.
Part 1: On Saving Myself
I recall that in late September of freshman year (of college), I was really struggling to take care of myself—it felt like I was in the middle of all this emotional noise I didn’t know how to handle: the buzz of classes, the gentle hum of club activities, the clanging of all the friendships I was making and breaking and retaining, and the crescendo of a slowly-developing crush. In the midst of all of this, there was one particular day where I just found myself unable to cope with it all: I had just taken my first midterm in CC.5111, and, in the hour between that midterm and Concourse seminar, I found myself trying to talk to someone across the world and keep them from committing suicide. (This someone is also the same person who caused me a lot of trauma, so this made it additionally complicated; I will elide more details here, since they are not relevant.) Perhaps this is not the first time you have heard this story, but it is foundational to the way that I view my journey: that sense of helplessness was overwhelming and unbearable, along with, of course, the everything else of it all.
Sitting on the benches outside of 26-100 that day, CJ told me then that the only person I had to save was myself. This idea was new to me. In high school, I spent my days trying to save other people because I had this fundamental belief that any effort to save myself would be wasted; that it was fundamentally impossible for me to become better as a person. It is easy now to see why that might have been, given the original sin of being queer and Asian in South Dakota—but I digress. The point is that this thought, although initially repellant, became something I could begin to cling to as an ideology in this new world at MIT. I could be saved, and all I had to do was choose to save myself. In another word, I started to feel like I had agency.
I think this model got me through a lot of things; in particular, it got me through the exodus mostly unscathed, although I felt bad about not really being able to connect with other people about my particular concerns. I lived, I pushed myself through insane semesters, I reinforced this sense of grit, and this sense that I was capable of taking time for myself. Sophomore spring, I took one day a week as a “burn day,” a day to do absolutely nothing, and I mostly took care of myself, even though times seemed tougher than ever. I saved myself, and I survived, and for that I am grateful.
I think, however, that as this model has settled in, it has also become an excuse for selfishness, in a sense. This, too, is part of why freshman fall me loathed the idea of “only having to save myself.” The context has changed between then and now, though. Now that I know that it is possible to save myself, and now that I have gained confidence in my capacity to survive, I am much more stable than I have ever been—and, maybe, if I can always save myself, it once again becomes my obligation to save others. I think this argument is likely flawed, but I keep considering and taking actions that feel selfish in retrospect. I wish to not be that way—in saving myself, I surely should not take from another enough to doom them—but I also think that in many ways I am more inherently selfish than I recognize, and that this selfishness sits around corners and hurts a lot of other people out of my sight, which I only realize occasionally, and which I care about even more rarely. Of course, I won’t ever actively admit that I prioritize classes over people, but I’ll certainly prioritize my sleep “for mental health reasons” and then end up attending class the next morning, when I could skip class and sleep later and maybe help someone out more effectively. The weight function is all wrong.
Maybe this characterization is not fair. Maybe I must remember that I, too, am a finite resource, and, nowadays, one which is meted out in minutes, not hours. The quantity of thoughts and emotions that I can have is finite, too, meted out in words on a page, bit by bit—I may contain multitudes, but they are not unbounded. It is not as if I must not be saved: I thought about jumping, and about drowning last night, mostly in the abstract way of confirming to oneself that this would be a bad way to go, and as I stood on the side of the road today ready to jaywalk with Tong and Alex, I thought about how quickly I could get hit by a car. I would be lying if I said that the concepts did not have at least minimal appeal, in the moment.
How close to the edge can I get, before I can feel okay about saving myself before saving others?
Part 2: On Vulnerability
I have always been a very guarded person, in regards to my vulnerabilities and my emotions. I think the easy explanation for this, or, at least, the one provided by people almost unerringly when I make this statement, is that Asian culture does not permit for men to show emotion. I, personally, don’t believe that this is the proximal cause to my personal behavior—I’d rather think about it as one of many defense mechanisms I developed because of the environment I grew up in, where the fewer “weaknesses” I had, the better. Anything that anyone could use against me had to be quashed or guarded. This complex, in a sense, is also why I strived to excel in every other context, so that nobody could tell me I was worthless. Invulnerability was seen as part of survival.
Yet, I have always wanted to be vulnerable—or, in another sense, I have always wanted to share those vulnerabilities that I guarded. This urge, too, is primarily selfish: I wanted to learn how to be vulnerable, because I felt like I had totally forgotten that skill, and I wanted to be more comfortable in my own skin. More insidiously, I felt like some of my problems were not going to go away, and I wanted to be able to ask other people to help deal with them. This desire to offload my problems, in a sense, grew with time, both as I matured and as I acquired more problems; indeed, I would have never come out in middle school, but by the time I had gotten to junior year in high school and found out that I was not straight, it had already fallen into the category of things that I was not going to spend more of my energy hiding. I was ready, in a sense, to be less guarded.
To achieve that general end, writing has almost always been my means. I started blogging in January of 2018 because I had even more thoughts that I couldn’t keep to myself and couldn’t articulate well in conversation, and I blogged very openly about my problems, about my victories, and about my sadnesses. Yet, of course, a filter went up immediately. After all, I outed myself to my parents when I started writing—and so I didn’t write anything I didn’t want my parents to see. Vulnerability guarded again. Eventually, in May of 2020, I finally shifted over to keep my thoughts to a private circle of people, and I let myself go a little more. It is easier, of course, to be vulnerable to people you know and trust. Yet, of course, the filter still stands, in a way. There are pieces of content I still do not share, because they feel too close to one’s heart. This, of course, is allowed—people all have their secrets—but many of the things I hide still seem irrational, or like I am still the same kid I was in middle school. Maybe this, too, is a symptom of some kind.
How do you get close to other people if you will not let them get close to you, if you will not let yourself depend on them? How can other people love you if they do not truly know you? These are questions I ask myself a lot, and in many ways my answers to them are still works-in-progress, yet they feel particularly poignant today. How can you be sustainably happy in a relationship, if you cannot say the words clearly, or let yourself feel safe enough to let down your guards?
Part 3: On The Failure of Empathy
I tried catching someone else last night, but I think I only made it worse. The frustrating part was that, in a way, I knew almost exactly how they felt, bit-by-bit, because I had felt it before myself, and yet I could not find the correct words to make it better. I guess the process of making it out is slow, but I have done it. I asked different questions and I hoped to try and push on some misunderstandings, but all it did was make both of us feel worse as we grappled with the darkness in the very deepest part of their thoughts. How can it be that I cannot empathize even with situations which are so close to my lived experiences? Both Tong and Alex, of course, said that the things which seemed shocking to me after this conversation seemed obvious; yet they were not at all to me.
Part of the shock, I suppose, arises from the parts of our conversation which I did not disclose to either of them, or what I found to be the fundamental root cause of all of this and the deepness with which it was engrained. Yet I think there is an aspect to it that I am just bad at observation, and that I assume people are generally doing better than I am. One of my biggest failures of imagination here is that I simply I cannot imagine the way pain collects in one’s life without a means of catharsis—art, writing, talking to other people—but many people go without this all the time. I used to think that some people seemed shallow, in this way; I took people saying that they “don’t like writing” to mean that they “don’t have deep thoughts.” It seems now that it is more of a way to say “I don’t have a language or a desire to convey my complex feelings and thoughts precisely,” and, perhaps, this makes emotional problems even harder than they would be otherwise. This is easy to see now that it is written, but, again, the failure of empathy abounds.
Regardless of the intricacies of this particular failure of empathy, this general feeling of incompetence dissatisfies me both as a person and as a writer. The latter, more trivial concern is that it seems implausible that I would ever be able to create relatable characters if I can never see past my own windshield. In essence, it presents the whole realm of fiction as inaccessible to me; that I should simply stick to my lane, and write essays and poetry and stop trying to be a fiction writer. As a person, though, it ties more closely with just the fundamental idea that I have any capacity to care for or help other people who are struggling. The lack of this capacity is not a new concept I have grappled with—I’ve been wondering about my lack of empathy since freshman spring, which is where I really felt like it had disappeared. Maybe life has simply gotten more complex, and my capacity has not cought up to its intricacies, or maybe MIT really has stolen something from me.
I think the other concern here is a deep inconsistency in my understanding of what someone needs at a given point. MindHandHeart and lean0nme both emphasize that supporters should not give solutions; that they should be there to be a listening ear, and be willing to ask questions without judgment or suggestion. Yet, especially for my close friends, I want to be there to listen, but I also want to be there to actively provide steps towards becoming better. In these cases, my brain is jumping in before any part of me can empathetically consider the necessity of advice at any given moment. It seems, in essence, that I am trying to solve a person, rather than actually be there for them, even if that “solving” comes from a place of care. This, too, is frustrating—getting over that hump and figuring out a different, better thing to say is hard, no matter how much practice l0m provides. Is this skill, too, something I have lost?
At one point during high school, I used to be therapy friend, team mom, and all of the roles I could serve in-between. Nowadays, I feel like I have none of those capacities; it seems like I barely help even when I am trying my best. The only time I’ve felt legitimately helpful this semester is 6.0001 office hours. At the very least, I can solve those problems, and, if I’m lucky, eke out some joy and relief for the student every once in a while.
What does it take to have empathy in the dark and complex, without destroying yourself in the process? Is it even possible for me to save others, if I cannot ever truly understand them?
None of these final questions have answers yet. As the discussion shows, I have been asking them for a long time, even though I feel like they come from different places now: for the first, a new-found position of strength; for the second, an additional, more private road to expression; for the last, a better understanding of some of my deficits. I suspect it may be a long time before I find more concrete answers, if I ever do, but at least I have thoughts about them. It’s the “what to do next?” question, though, that really bothers me, both in the specific and the abstract. What are the next steps to resolving all the tensions in these concepts? How do I make sure the people around me are okay? How do I search for answers to these questions?
Today was, as perhaps the above text suggests, not great. I must keep this blog short, for the usual reasons; I will hope to be back on my feet tomorrow, at least a little bit, and that this wing can at some point begin making smaller steps towards a sustainable future.
I stayed up last night after blogging, and a lot of people ended up in a pretty bad headspace as a result, including myself. I went to bed, and Tong stayed awake essentially until the morning, at first with Alex, and then by himself, in the cold of the day. I got up at 9 to work desk as Tong went to breakfast (or, I suppose, dinner, since this was consumed before bed), and then considered going to class very briefly at 10:30. I did not make it past New House before deciding that this was infeasible; that I need to conserve my energy a little, and to get a little more sleep, and so I returned to Next House, and slept until 12:30 before I finally got up.
I kept watch in the lounge until 1:30 or so, writing a lot of the text you see above and generally getting my legs under me after my morning struggle, and then Katherine and I walked to campus together; she headed to lab, and I headed to Chipotle, where I grabbed my burrito. I wolfed down the food outside of E38, and then walked back to 1-190 as quickly as I could to attend 6.170 lecture. I paid a little bit of attention, and the content was cool, but I was still kind of out of it; it did seem valuable, at the very least.
6.0001 office hours followed; they were not as busy as on Monday, but still brimming with people looking for checkoffs. I skipped dinner after this and found Alex on my way to the Concourse lounge, so we did some walking and talking together instead; we crossed the Harvard Bridge and came back, and then psetted in each other’s presence for about 15 minutes in 8-205 before I had to go to Concert Choir.
Today’s rehearsal for Concert Choir was a little more eventful; we had a guest artist who showed us some interesting techniques and warmed up with us. We did some improvisations that I would’ve loved to have joined in if I had felt a little more confident today. After the guest left for MITWE, we worked through some more music (with very little content of note), and then I returned to Next, calling my parents along the way.
I did some work on 7.03 in the lounge when Alex eventually arrived, asking if any of us wanted to go scream into the void. Tong and I joined him, and then Tong very kindly forced us to go to Maseeh late night, so that I would eat dinner. (I would like to say a more general “thank God for Tong” here. I have never been so happy to live in a double.) We ate, and then we returned to Next, and then I finished the 7.03 pset, and then I kept writing until I eventually “finished” the above essay. I suppose that it is about as done as it will ever be now; some of the sections are not as fleshed out as perhaps they could be, but I am going to bed soon.
Tomorrow, to be seen. But that is a question for the moment, and not for now.