Saturday, July 12, 2014

Раскольник

This post is not a relay of my cool experiences in Russia. This post gets a little deep, and I apologize if it's repetitive, whiny or frustrating. But you just might get something out of it if you give it a chance... 
Or you might just hate it.

I'm been thinking about "Crime and Punishment" recently. And I remember when we read it in St. Petersburg and our gregarious and amazing Russian professor, Alexander Prokhorov, explained to us the name of the main character, Rodion Raskol'nikov. In Russian, "Raskol" means something along the lines of "split" or "torn." Long story short, Raskol'nikov is emotionally and morally torn in a number of ways, and eventually his guilt destroys him.

I've been feeling torn lately.

No, I haven't committed a crime as my boy Rodion had, but the feeling of listlessness that he carries throughout his book seems to define my psyche at the moment.

I'm back in America for the time-being, killing time until I get my visa to go back to Russia. The weather is beautiful and I get to see my family and eat my favorite foods and watch the Red Sox and go to the beach and climb my favorite mountains...

But for some reason I can't enjoy it. I'm stressed. I'm worried about the future. But mostly I am split between a number of pretty good choices. The paradox of choice most definitely isn't a new idea, but it's something that has only really emerged in my life in the last year or so. When all of your choices seem pretty good, how can you choose between them?

I suppose we could chalk this up to first world problems, but seriously, how can we know what the best decision is? One might say do what you want to do. Well, what if you don't really know what you want? One might say choose the option that gets you closer to your goals? Well, what if one is risky and gets you closer to your goals, and one is safe but will take longer to reach your goals? What if there are several possible options that form a gradient of such choices?

I've been running into problems in my thinking everywhere when it comes to making decisions. I know I don't have full information. But when can you ever REALLY have full information about something? You can never know everything about a situation or an organization until you have experienced it from the inside yourself. So how can you choose? And what if, after you choose, you hate your choice?

Now, the grass is always greener on the other side, right? But what if the grass REALLY IS greener on the other side? What then? And how can you know if your psychology is just playing tricks on your mind, or if you are being manipulated by someone else, or if the grass truly is greener? Basically, how can you find truth in this world?

One might say there is no objective truth. That might be true ;). But I know for a fact that one of the choices I can make is the best possible choice, but I completely distrust my own ability to make that choice.

One problem with living in a foreign country is that you are far from your support base. Even being far from home at university I was never really THAT far. And it was easy to make friends - I met many people with similar backgrounds and I was part of several organizations that provided me with communities from which I could quickly build a support network. Everyone needs a support network - friends, colleagues, mentors, leaders, bosses, parents, etc.

And when you run off to a foreign country for a year you start from scratch, and you meet very few people who have a similar background as you, and it is hard to build this network. Especially if you tend to be an introvert anyway, it's very easy to become a recluse.

This didn't happen to me physically - I had many "friends" and spent much of my time making public appearances of various forms - but rather it happened emotionally. I don't have a friend in Novosibirsk who I can really talk to about emotional things. I don't have someone with whom I can connect on common experiences. Sure, I know young Russians, and I know some Americans, but no one is really like me - as opposed to how it was at university. Being a part of the William and Mary cross country team I had 30 guys at any given time experiencing the same challenges, as well as moments of euphoria, and it was easy to connect and relate. The only form of that I had this year in Russia was our Fulbright group, which is why when we all met in January there was an eruption of friendliness and joy. But when I was actually living and working in Novosibirsk, I was alone.

And this fall I will be truly alone in that regard. And that scares me.

But this loneliness is entirely self-imposed. I don't have to go to Russia. I could stay right here in America and immediately have a community and structure. I could have a job. I could be close to my family. I could make decent money and I could live a normal, decent life, while I look for jobs in the field of international relations...

But there is something about that that scares me too. Precisely because I am alone, because I don't have responsibility to a family of my own (wife, children), because I'm not locked down by a job and a house and expenses here in the United States, I still have a chance to explore the world. I can go live by myself in Siberia and acquire more experience, improve my Russian, and (hopefully) develop my character in a positive direction. If I choose to stay in the USA now, I may lose that chance forever.

One thing I regret about my Fulbright year is that I did not have any concrete short term goals. Sure, I have the long-term goal of being a fluent Russian speaker and eventually working in the Foreign Service, but I had no stepping stones to get there. And when you don't have concrete goals, it's very easy for other people to manipulate you so that you help them achieve their goals. I spent my Fulbright year basically ready for anything, and willing to try anything because, I figured, I didn't know anything about Russian life, I couldn't predict what might happen, so I just went "with the flow."

I still think that's a fine way to start, but eventually, no matter where you are, you have to start building something of your own. You have to live life by your own rules, not someone else's. If you just drift, ready to accept any opportunity someone gives you, someone will manipulate you. And Russians are master manipulators.

It doesn't have to be serious, acute, manipulation, but when you find yourself reflecting and you realize you're doing things you don't actually want to do, that don't help you achieve your goals, you have been manipulated. You are helping someone else achieve their goals, and you are just living.

I've always hated closed-mindedness and ignorance. But let's be honest - ignorance is bliss. Let me explain.

Who is happier - The person who knows how little he knows, or the person who thinks he knows everything? The person who has 1,000 options and knows he'll never have enough information to make a decision with which he is satisfied, or the person with 2 options and an easy decision? The person who chooses to engage every idea, or the person who ignores those ideas to stay in their own, restricted paradigm? The person who believes in nothing because he can never have every doubt eased, or the person who blindly believes and has faith and confidence in something or someone?

It's good to be open-minded, but you have to close your mind eventually. No, maybe that's not right. Maybe you just need a foundation. It's just, damnit, it's dangerous to have your mind open to every opinion, every person, every possibility, if you're not damn good at judging those people, opinions, and opportunities. Maybe it IS better to find something that you like and to say TO HELL with any other options, let them appear good or bad, because it's just not safe.

I feel like I used to be like that. When I was 17 I was closed-minded. I knew everything. I was 100% confident in my personal abilities. I was good at what I did and I was successful in everything I had ever done. As I've learned more, I've grown less confident. Even though I've learned and learned, I feel weaker and less competent. I know how much I don't know, and it infiltrates every part of my character, every one of my actions.

Living in Russia has made me even more cynical, even more skeptical. And negative. Darn it, I've turned into a negative Nancy. I was always a bit of a contrarian and argumentative, but now I find myself having gut negative reactions to just about everything around me. The weather could be beautiful, and my brother will say, "it's a nice day outside," and I will feel the negative response "no, it isn't," boil up from my chest to my throat. And when it reaches my head I realize, "that's a stupid thing to think," and I choke it back down. But why the heck do I think that way to begin with?

I was thinking about starting the second book from the Ender's Game series by Orson Scott Card. I've actually only read the introduction, but he wrote something even there that really struck a chord with me:

"The romantic hero is unconnected. He belongs to no community; he is wandering from place to place, doing good (as he sees it), but then moving on. This is the life of the adolescent, full of passion, intensity, magic, and infinite possibility; but lacking responsibility, rarely expecting to have to stay to bear the consequences of error.
Only when the loneliness becomes unbearable do adolescents root themselves, or try to root themselves. It may or may not be in the community of their childhood, and it may or may not be their childhood identity and connections that they resume upon entering adulthood. And, in fact, many fail at adulthood and constantly reach backward for the freedom and passion of adolescence. But those who achieve it are the ones who create civilization"


I want to help create civilization. But am I done with adolescence? Either way, I need to get better at making decisions, by more clearly defining what I want.

But how? Therein lies the rub.

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