January 12, 2022
Happy New Year, friends! 2021 was one of the most meaningful years of my life, and I hear I'm not alone. I’m writing this long overdue update to reconnect with people - some of you may have wisdom to share, or are facing similar challenges. If you haven’t heard from me in a while it’s because I spent 2020 secluded in the woods with friends. Isolated, I easily made the independent lifestyle choices, big and small, that eluded me otherwise. I loved who I became, so I resolved to keep it up in 2021, but reentering society was a rude awakening. The unfettered freedom of 2020 was replaced by consequences everywhere - hurt feelings, money lost, people disappointed. When I asked my dad for advice, he didn't tell me what to choose, but he did tell me the worst decision was making none at all. If I'm right, great. If I'm wrong, I learn. If I just don’t decide, I get nothing. I knew the taste of agency, so I pressed on - ended relationships I loved, both romantic and professional, devoted myself to independent study/art, started a new group house with loving friends, and took on mental and physical challenges I thought impossible.
That impossible physical challenge, running an Ironman 70.3, happened in September. It wasn’t just my first Ironman, or first triathlon, it was actually my first race. At the start of 2020 I had never run more than 2 miles, I didn’t know any swim strokes, and the only bike I owned was a steel fixie hand-me-down. Even so, my friend Armand, ever the eager instigator, insisted it would be fun to try. He was right. At some level, I feared failure so much that I needed something this difficult to mobilize myself. I only mustered the determination to swim almost every day once I learned that if I failed the swim I would have to forfeit the whole race. It was quite clear if I didn’t give it absolutely everything I had, it just wouldn’t work. Nevertheless, I couldn’t believe how quickly consistent training and supportive friends who pushed my limits got me ready. I told myself for DECADES that I wasn’t an endurance athlete, that I just didn’t have stamina, that I could never run more than a few miles. It took quite a challenge, but after the race I felt like I'd caught my past self red-handed, with the rope he'd been tying around my ankles for years in hand.
I continue to reckon with my self-limiting beliefs into 2022. My capacity for self-deceit is now glaring, but making decisions with consequences seems to force a sincerity that’s hard to fake. At a meditation retreat I attended in November, one of the instructors noticed my enthusiasm, but warned me of its double edged nature. He taught me the Pali word “samvega” - it means spiritual urgency. Theravada Buddhists cite it as the first emotion you bring to your practice, the underlying energy that begets your dedication. You cultivate it by simply noticing the suffering of life - death, old age, illness, and hunger. For it to work well though, for you to see the true nature of things and debias your attention sufficiently, it needs to be balanced with “pasada”, a “clarity and serene confidence”. Urgency without this confidence turns into a misguided enthusiasm, beset with delusion, fear, and striving. With even less confidence, samvega turns into nihilistic despair. For me, the key to unlocking that confidence was not simply willing it, but delivering myself sufficient compassion and curiosity to reassure myself it was worth trying.
I will never forget that the year it became easy for me to discover my own direction was also the year the world was wrought by pandemic, civil unrest, wildfires, unemployment, poverty, and so much other suffering. To see the world clearly is a heavy proposition; it is as dark as it is bright, as much a graveyard as it is a nursery. I struggle to hold both to be true, to make decisions knowing I hold as much responsibility for the worst case scenario as the best one. A subtle distinction I hold dear is that bravery is to act without fear, while courage is to act despite fear. It is so much easier for me to move forward with an ignorant bravery than a considered courage. But it is only in the practice of considered courage that I learn to trust myself, and that I could expect others to trust me. I feel a responsibility just by existing, to live a life of my own design, to accept and learn about the world as it is, not how I want it to be, and to contribute meaningfully to others doing the same. This year I began to see Joan Didion’s wisdom first-hand, that “character - the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life” truly “is the source from which self-respect springs.”
Last, I cannot honestly reflect on my growth without thanking the people in my life most of all, without whom my growth would have been not only impossible but also without aim. Namely, I would like to thank: Ben for his sincerity, Armand for his dedication, Serena for her compassion, Kanjun for her curiosity, Will for his confidence, Xinlu for her willfulness, Madeline for her alacrity, and my father for his wisdom. Again, I am sharing all of these thoughts with you because I want to foster more of these connections. If these questions resonate with you, or if you're ahead of me and want to share what you learned, or if you just want to talk about art and learning - I want to hear from you!