Exhaustion and passion

Snot freezes as you wipe it on the back of your glove, panting like a madman, every muscle in your body cursing your dumb ass for putting on skis and crossing the starting line.  You’re by yourself for a moment, far enough behind the leaders that it feels like you’re on your own in the woods here, just you and the tracks and the snowy trees, but you know that when you emerge from this patch of woods in a few minutes you’ll be faced with the worst hill on the course, steep as sin with your coach at the top, yelling.  The widow maker, it’s called, and with good reason.  You have no idea where you’ll find the strength to struggle up that hill.  4 more kilometers.

Twenty minutes later you collapse into the snow with sweat steaming off you after crossing the finish line, and it’s like a wave of amnesia hits as suddenly the race wasn’t that bad, and you love skiing again.  A week from now you’ll once again hate it with a fiery passion as you’re in the middle of your next race, and the cycle continues.  You didn’t win, didn’t even come close, but it was worth it.  Probably.

People don’t set enough stock in hating something but doing it anyway.  When I’m completely honest with myself, I’m a pretty lazy person.  Given the chance, I’ll sleep 12 hours a day and spend the other half in a completely unproductive manner.  I’m not one of those go getters who’s unable to sit still for a second—I’m perfectly happy to spend a minute, or 3 weeks, sitting around.  Working hard is a struggle, and no matter how much I care about a project, a lot of times I hate it in the moment.  It’s not until I cross the finish line and collapse into a snow bank that I can tell whether it’s been worth it.

Finding your one true passion and following your dreams, on the other hand, is vastly overrated.  Especially when you don’t have one.  Or you have a million, and you hate all of them at one point or another.  For the longest time I ascribed to the cult of passion, the idea that one day with enough self scrutiny, I could peel away my layers and find inside me that one true calling that I was meant to follow.  Or maybe I just had to keep trying things, one after another, until I hit the jackpot, found the path that would make me come alive, and a heavenly host would descend to affirm my decision.  No matter how many articles my mother sends about successful people with ‘non traditional career paths,’ it’s hard to internalize that over the din of years of people telling you to “do what you love,” “follow your dream,” and “change the world.”  It was a complete shock sophomore year when I realized that there might not be just one right major for me, that there might be many ‘right’ paths that I could follow, and it was pretty unlikely that I would ruin my life by making the ‘wrong’ choice.  Shocking.

But in those many years of waiting to discover my passion, I always assumed that my dreams would show up around the same time.  And giving up on the one true passion idea shouldn’t—but did—mean giving up on passions altogether.  Passion is the treatment, if not the cure, for exhaustion.  Reminding yourself in the middle of the ski race that you do, in fact, love skiing, even as much as you hate it at the time.  Without passion, it’s easy to forget why you’re doing this, easy to burn out, break down when you hit the wall.  Easy to believe the professor who tells you you’ll never be the smartest person in the room.  Easy to give in to depression and anxiety and exhaustion, to stop going to class, stop talking, stop eating, when you feel that weight crushing your chest and all you want is to have that same drive as your peers, the go getters who continually push themselves to do more, to be the best, and even though you know it might not be healthy to work so hard all the time, you still wish that you could.  Without passion or a plan, it’s hard to trust yourself.

I have no passion for pure math in a vacuum. Mathematics is important in that it’s a language we use to describe and approximate the world around you, and a set of tools to analyze that world.  It is the building block of every science, every study.  Necessary for everything but sufficient for nothing.  It can describe the world but not capture it.

People use this tool set for amazing things.  Me?  I don’t know.  Maybe that’s the problem.  My passion, or passions (plural), has never been the math itself.  It’s what I can use it for.  I want to run studies on educational reform and the achievement gap that perpetuates systematic inequality.  I want to build climate models that analyze the effects that we’re having on our planet.  I want to analyze data for studies of new drugs that may or may not be effective enough to help people.  I want to create maps of forest fires and the spread of invasive species and the twitter languages of London.  I want to work for Wall Street to create change from the inside out, because maybe the world is full of sleazy banks because only the sleazy become bankers.   I want to teach high school math so kids think critically about the lies, damn lies and statistics that they see in the media every day.

I reject the notion that the humanities hold the moral high ground, and I do plan to effect social and/or environmental change with the skill set I’m learning here.  And that is my passion.

It’s still exhausting.  It’s still day-to-day sometimes, and I’m still going to hate it sometimes.  But after finishing a semester and lying sweating in a snow bank looking up at the sky, the question is how it’s framed; the narrative we tell ourselves about our lives and the selective amnesia that comes with the idea that it was ‘worth it’.   And the next semester starts, and the cycle continues—until finally it doesn’t, and then it’s time to see which of the narratives I’ve told myself is true.