Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Year of Humility

Most places around the world, 2011 is complete. The year has a few hours of life left here, and a few more in Hawaii, and then 2012 will shift from the future to the present.

The previous year was pre-selected for some major events in my life. I finished college, and began grad school. I knew these milestones would be passed this year some time ago, and looked forward to 2011 with a hopeful kind of impatience. I picked up an award, a diploma, a few fellowships, and a job offer at Boeing, and left for a summer in Seattle for the second time in my life.

2011 was trying in a host of ways I didn't, and probably couldn't have, anticipated. Finishing college forced me to come face to face with the wideness of the gulf between the shifts I want to effect in the world and the tools I have to accomplish things right now. The constant, gypsy-like motion of living my life in 16 week increments is starting to get old. Most of all, grad school itself has been trying beyond anything I would've believed before this August. I feel battered and weary after a semester striving to warp myself into some creature that can thrive in this climate, and realizing that I don't really want to do that. More on this later.

More than most years, it seems like the world's a bit emptier than when the year began. In 2011 we said goodbye to people evil (bin Laden, Gaddafi, Kim), visionary and creative (Jobs, Hitchens, Havel), and personal (my grandpa, Obbie). The three surviving Space Shuttle orbiters lie still, never again to fly under power. Juno and Curiosity have left Earth forever, bound for Jupiter and Mars. Earth now holds seven billion people, and space six, all better fed than ever before. The gains of this year are sure to exceed the losses, but that will take time to realize.

More than anything, I feel humbled at the end of this year. I've reached all my life, and after the last semester I'm sorer than usual from reaching. For all the ends and codas and completed programs of the past year, the world remains incomplete, to say the least. There's nothing special about the particular year of 2012. Even its boundaries are arbitrary constructs. It's simply next. The next place we act, the next time with which to yearn and act and decide. As the year closes, I think A. E. Housman's sentiment in "Reveille" is appropriate:

Clay lies still, but blood's a rover;
Breath's a ware that will not keep.
Up, lad; when the journey's over
There'll be time enough for sleep.

Monday, December 5, 2011

On Kneeling in Doubt

Earlier today I spent about nine hours working on a problem set for my dynamics class. That in itself isn't too bad, or too strenuous, but given that today has been a more relaxed day than most for classwork and the end of the semester is fast approaching, I'm not really at my best right now in terms of rest or responsiveness. When I left midway through deriving the Lagrangian equations of motion for a double pendulum (because I'm cool and do that kind of thing in grad school) to head to the evening mass at St. Mary's, Zach asked the obvious. Was I Catholic? I said "no," which is true, and brushed off the question of why I would do such a thing since I didn't have a good response.

It bothers me that I don't have a good response to this. When Augustine was going through RCIA last year, we talked often about Catholic whatnot and I was generally intrigued by her insight. Now that she's out of College Station, the only thing keeping up my momentum to learn more about religion and general and Catholic-flavored Christianity in particular is my own stubbornness, and I'm starting to realize the limits of that drive. Stubbornness is good for keeping up a mindless plod forward, but is quite weak in the face of the complexities and mysteries of life and religion. I keep sitting and genuflecting and kneeling in church, but less often than I used to. Those equations aren't going to derive themselves, after all, and in the meantime the question of why I should be there when I don't share the creed haunts me.

I'm tired of feeling out of place at St. Mary's. I'm tired of standing silently, like an idiot, while everyone else gets on with the Nicene Creed. I'm tired of feeling like a clockwork Christian, doing the motions, understanding the arguments, even feeling the right emotions at the right times, and not having a damn clue if any of it means anything at all. The reality is that I understand Christian theology and arguments better now than I have at any point in my life before, and I still don't find it convincing, on balance. Catholicism is a beautiful idea, but for all my effort to unstick my paradigm and see if it'll shift, I can't see it as anything but an idea. It makes zero sense to continue acting as though I were Catholic, a part of my mind concludes.

Yet I find something compelling, something alluring about this faith. Faith itself is something so exotic and incomprehensible to the workings of my mind that I can't help but find some allure anywhere in organized religion I look, I suppose. Maybe it's just an effect of the soft blue walls and the pretty Catholic choir girls, but I feel a sense of calm kneeling among the faithful. It's not clarity, which I'd like, but even among the murk something just feels right about being there. I feel stupid during the creed, but then we sit down and sing "Hosanna," and I don't care about feeling stupid anymore, it just feels nice. So I go back, wondering what I'm doing or where I'm going, but in the pews for now.

I can't imagine anyone, atheist or faithful, would look on this story with anything but pity. Listening to many, it sounds as though it should be obvious one way or the other, and only a poor pitiful fool would hem and haw the way I've been doing for over a year now. I'm so sick and tired of being something to pity. I wish that I could shelve everything academic and focus all the solution techniques I've learned in engineering school on this one single issue. Are the Christians right? This question lingers long after I grow weary of the endless dynamics and continuum mechanics problems.

With the crunch of finals bearing down I don't expect to post again until after December 14. My experience in grad school so far merits discussion of its own, but for now I'll just mention that I'm dissatisfied enough with the environment to be looking elsewhere. I've applied for a job in Washington, DC, and I rolled the thought over and over in my head after receiving my blessing, Should I go east, if they want me? Once communion was done and we sat back in the pews, we sang the closing hymn, "People, Look East."

I'm not superstitious, but sometimes I wish I was. It would make major life decisions so much easier.