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The Carletonian

Trying (and failing) to go on autopilot

<lder I have gotten, the more I sympathize with my mother on matters I would not have understood growing up. One would hope that life would provide perspective, whether you seek it or not, and whether you like it or not. You should have something to show for your growth, as we call “living” today. For example, I always recalled her evasion whenever current events came up in the world beyond our home or her work. The classic response to my question, “What do you think?” was “I don’t think!” She wasn’t merely sassing me those times.

Lately, I have taken to the expression that I don’t want to live life on autopilot, owing to the hyperawareness of life at Carleton, with most every topic brought to my attention on every aspect of current events and the world. This happens despite being consigned to the Carleton Bubble—or Monastery. And yet it may be too soon in my life to say that I can understand why my mother isn’t keen on talking about the news.

The zeitgeist of television programming in many corners captures the sense of resignation of a world that at its best doesn’t seem to progress, and at its worst, a world getting worse. It’s why I’m relieved The Walking Dead is coming to a close, after enough seasons of situations that never improve for the human characters, who are more dangerous to each other than the zombies in its universe. It’s probably why I haven’t decided to keep up with House of Cards, although fictional presidents may be a greater respite than the real McCoy at the moment. Now consider that all these fictions dovetail with the real world that we are constantly reminded is changing faster than we can keep up, in all aspects: cultural and economic and technologic and more. This is certainly not the same world that existed ten years ago, let alone five, or one. It is difficult not to notice, lest we forget how remotely different it has been for the past five weeks…

My mother has seen enough changes, tumults, and uncertainty. This much I can say from her life in sum, having moved a family halfway around the world and experiencing two distinct cultures in the process. I would be amiss to think that she is not alone, not only in her generation. At this point, we all have experienced upheavals in different ways, detrimental or beneficial. I suspect a survival mechanism kicked in somewhere along the way for her, a desire to shrink and simplify the world, to focus on what she could: her job, her family, her friends. Even my father, the news junkie of the family, tends towards passivity. Since Inauguration Day, he has often said ever so blandly of everything done by the new administration, “We’ll see.”

Truly, this is not the way the world is. Living in this community here at Carleton, both academically and socially, always revealed so much that defied simplification. I’m talking about the lives of our colleagues and neighbors here, as well as the lives of those we’ve studied, and ideas of every discipline. That’s not to say we enjoyed discovering the complications anyway. This is what has made the past few weeks disturbing for me, because I do want to shut out the news, even as I read it with a sigh or some grumbling. It also happens that I am compsing, all the better reason to shut off a social media presence, restrict news consumption in my email inbox, and focus. Why not sign off, even for a relatively brief while? I have all the privileges of doing so, at a place like this, and with a science COMPS like mine that has little to no bearing on the state of humanity today.
I haven’t quite gone truly autopilot, try as I might. I’m too hardwired to know what’s going on, my eyes drawn to my newsmagazine subscriptions like moths to a flame. As my parents noted, I’m still young and stubborn. In spite of the fatigue of all the news from Washington—and goodness knows we’re loath to hear what’ll come out Donald’s mouth next time—there’s still merit in the urgency of being reminded of our state of affairs.

The words of Nadia Drake come to mind, reflecting in November 2015 on the difficulty on writing about science after the terror attacks in Beirut, Paris, and other cities: “Sometimes the best thing we can do is be good to one another and share stories of the human mind and spirit at their best.”

On that note, here are two parting thoughts. First, the day that I presented my COMPS last week, a quaint headline flashed about the discovery of seven habitable planets. Compared to most other events on Earth, this counted as good news. Any celebration of some meaningful collaborative effort, however removed from life, should still happen. Life manages to keep going somehow; we must press on. Second, though I know my mother tries to shrink the world, what she does within those imagined borders still matters, in the ways she acts at work and at home. Whatever self-imposed borders on the world we have, what we do immediately around us still ties us together, indelibly so. It is then a mark of living: to best make do wherever we are with whoever is around us. Living that way is something we can’t give up on, not yet.

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