On Participation

One of my favorite books is The Perks of Being a Wallflower. I doubt I am alone in this, as this is surely a sentiment echoed by many people who have passed through the formative years of their teens in the past decade or so. This classic coming-of-age story brings up many themes that are important in growing up, but none are emphasized quite as much as the importance of participating in life. The main character, Charlie, learns to stop being a perpetual wallflower (hence the title of the book), and learns what it means to “participate” in his own story.

“Participating” happens to be one concept that’s been buzzing around my head lately, along “discipline,” “studying the GRE,” and perhaps most terrifyingly, “doing something with your life.” As a rising senior in college, I’m staring into a blank future in a way that I have not done since the care-free euphoria immediately following my graduation from high school. Back then, the possibilities of my future were endless. In a way, they still are, but it’s…different. Imagine a picture of a person standing on the edge of a dock, staring out into the distance and seeing nothing but the sea. That was me then. I had yet to embark on any sort of journey. At this point, I am more like someone in a boat. I can still see the dock behind me, but I am certainly not connected to dry land anymore.

Now, I have three years of time spent on problem sets, late-night discussions, and building new relationships behind me. I have had my share of humbling failures and rallying successes. I’ve come to see the world differently, in ways that make me both more optimistic as well as more cynical. And I have to start thinking about the next stretch of my journey into that blue horizon of the future.

The thing is, I don’t know where that journey will take me. And even if I did know where I was going to graduate school, as I will in less than a year from now (I hope), I could not tell you where I would be after that. It is part of my personal philosophy to take life one step at a time. Looking at the future is like staring straight into the sun; it will blind if you look for too long. I am good at appreciating my immediate surroundings; a quality for which I am quite grateful. I accomplish what I need to do in the short term, and the long term usually sorts itself out. But I am coming to a point in my life where I feel more serious reflection is needed.

That said, I do not think that it is necessary to know exactly where I want to be in five or ten years. Anyone who claims to know that in their early 20s is either not living a particularly interesting life or is painfully close-minded. My future “success” need not be contingent on the completion of an arbitrary goal. Instead, what I can do is start to mold myself into the person that I want to arrive at whatever shores the boat from our tired old metaphor lands. If it is indeed true, as I have often heard, that the journey is more important than the destination, then I had better prepare myself for a process of success rather than a single defining moment.

This brings me back to my original point, as well as the title of my inaugural post. I need to start participating in life. It is so easy to sit back and simply absorb the unfathomable amount of information that is available on the Internet (and on this very website). I need to stop scrolling through endless feeds of other people’s lives, floating lazily on the river of words that comes out of my screen. I don’t know where I am going in life, but if I am going to arrive at anywhere I want to be, I need to add to the mess of ideas, art, and innovation of which modern society is comprised.

My participation begins here. I have wrought the words of the English language to convey something more than a well-reasoned thesis for an academic paper. Normally, when the subject of writing comes up, I say “Oh, I enjoy writing; I just don’t do it as often as I would like.” Well when the hell will I do it, if not in my daily life? For too long I have pushed off putting my thoughts into words; now I have an outlet. The significance of this goes beyond simple creative expression; my role as a consumer of information has changed. I am now a producer. I have put words together in novel ways. I am interacting. I am participating.

This brings me to the end of this post. I don’t want to make any promises I can’t keep, but I will do my utmost to be back soon. I have a feeling I will realize I have more to say that I thought.