Waging battles on slippery slopes

I am not an expert in any of the topics I’m about to discuss. I am a twenty-two year old Asian male studying structural engineering, and I spend nearly all my time at Stanford thinking about finite element analysis, solar-powered homes, and global sustainability. I stay away from house parties because hard alcohol tastes like poison, I hate the music, and my friends turn into complete assholes.

But a recent article on the Daily, while raising valid points about the dangers of sexual assault, seemed to go too far when it built its argument around a war-like image of women fighting male privilege at parties. As the author illustrates, “Parties are a war of survival” in which women “suit up in their favorite cut-off shorts and crop tops” and stage “rescue missions” for their allies. Perhaps this is appropriate rhetoric given the assaults, sexist remarks, and objectifications in the media that pelt us like a torrential rain, and I suspect this is the perceived setting in which some women on campus wage “battles” every Friday and Saturday night. But I’m concerned that many women, inspired by the thunder around them, are fighting the wrong battle, and possibly even the wrong war. The primary enemy at a house party is alcohol abuse, and most men and women are fighting to lose. Parties perpetuate a culture that entangles alcohol abuse and sexuality, and these two are so closely linked that we simply cannot accept arguments about sexual abuse that ignore the effects of alcohol or assume that the house party is an inherently innocuous pastime.

The author of the Daily article took the wider party culture for granted, as many proponents do when they claim that there’s nothing wrong with twenty-year-olds turning up on a Friday or Saturday night. But those who have self-selected out of this culture are perhaps most attuned to its true nature. I experienced this in my freshman dorm when peers would ask me if their crop top made their breasts look bigger, or if their bro tanks showed off their biceps, or if their cutoff shorts would attract more attention to their butts. These men and women did not have the intentions of sleeping in their own beds that night. Some put down shot after shot hoping that the alcohol would let them make less rational decisions when it came to sex. Some even wanted to be objectified because it made them feel more desired. And this was just one freshman dorm room, out of hundreds on campus. The staggering majority of partiers are not going to house parties to battle the enemy of male privilege with their valiant allies. They are going there to make bad decisions and have fun with it. To get fucked, in all senses of the word. Which means, unfortunately, that those who do like to party in a responsible way have no choice but to subject themselves to uncomfortable and dangerous situations.

I suspect these claims will only cause more outcry from partiers. But culture by definition protects its own interests, and its most defensive voices are often those most inebriated by its influence, so we should never assume any culture to be objective, especially when the consequences can be life-threatening. Waging battles on slippery slopes only perpetuates the war.

Removing parties and alcohol from the equation, we can return to a sober and principled discussion about gender equality, namely the inherent biophysical differences between men and women, the institutionalized governance we need to assure those differences don’t translate into political or socioeconomic differences, and the cultural misrepresentations of both men and women that plague both to feel that they are in some neverending quest for dominance. The greatest flaw of the Daily article, and perhaps college feminism, is in mistaking the head spins, raging bodies, and trashy EDM of the house party as a sign of war between men and women. If we really want to talk about gender equality, the right war is no war at all. Rather we should be participating in a mutual intervention on our cultural upbringings to make sure that the deeply-established beliefs and habits we’ve formed can one day become gender-blind at a personal and societal level. This should be about everybody winning, not one side or the other. Perhaps this is the ultimate goal of feminism that often gets lost in its aggressive rhetoric — but then again, I’m no expert.

Enough with my freedoms: Media and our complicity in tragedy

From a friend:

I think the preventative measures you wrote about can be achieved through school, but we should take a step back. An even greater preventative measure involves cutting out the source of the psychosis, our media and modern movies. The Hollywood that he was living in his head was born from the messages that he lived through and those that we continue to subject children to. We need to change media.”

This and a variety of insightful reads compel me to share my thoughts on culture, which had already been on my mind days before the shooting for a different reason. I was looking at the trending list on my Facebook news feed; side by side were the headline about Boko Haram and the then-still-missing kidnapped schoolgirls, and a headline about Donald Sterling getting kicked out of his ownership of the Clippers by the NBA. This pairing really concerned me. How could these two stories be anywhere close to the same stature? They sure look to be equally important on my screen: same font size, same list. What exactly does “trending” mean? Is that what we think is important or what Facebook thinks we think is important? That’s when I realized how manipulative Facebook could be with our news. Read the above link and this Vox article to see what I mean.

I don’t believe that Donald Sterling is a good person or that he is justified in any way for what he said. But I also don’t think our social media is justified in blowing a private statement into wild proportions and burning him at the stake. (I also don’t think the NBA’s decision is appropriate in comparison to the penalties they give out for much more inappropriate acts by players and coaches throughout the years, but that’s not the central argument here.)

Think what you think about this specific racism incident, but also seriously consider whether, if you were a citizen in New England in the 17th century and had Facebook, you would NOT have been complicit in the hysteria of the Salem Witch Trials. Or McCarthyism during the Cold War. Or whether, in a future that no longer seems as far as 1984 was, you’ll find the comments you make in private (let’s not even argue that we haven’t each made an insensitive comment once in our lives), or in your mind, spread like a virus through the web, and feel completely justified in becoming the scapegoat.

The problem with social media like Facebook is that people believe they are using a tool of communication, where in fact they are themselves tools in a machine of sensationalism. And that machine isn’t even driven by any specific journalistic mission, liberal or conservative, worldly or local. It’s driven by an algorithm written by somebody with a CS degree that feeds on its only source of appetite: raw views. Whatever drives readership drives profits. Social media itself is viral.

A few days ago in my conversations with Dylan on the Tube in London, I argued for the following new stance in computer ethics: that the government should compel sites like Facebook, Twitter, Google, etc. – anything that collects data about us – to restructure their terms of use statements to actually intentionally ensure that all their behind-the-scenes uses of data are fully communicated to users. Whether that is a twenty-minute interactive slideshow or game that requires 100% attention before every Facebook user can make his or her next login attempt or something else is a subject of a different conversation (like my final paper from CS181 Ethics of Computers), but suffice it to say that people get much more than they pay for with social media, and that we deserve to know exactly what that is. It’s our moral responsibility to know, but first it’s their ethical responsibility to make sure we know.

This in turn would lead to a collective awareness of how Facebook may or may not be biasing certain types of stories, like Donald Sterling, and promoting them more widely because they are more likely to be read, thus distorting the impression of objective importance. We should all clearly understand what is subjective on our News Feeds, what is profit-driven, and decide for ourselves if we want to enable that through our participation. Through doing nothing at all but clicking refresh. We should understand our responsibility as likers and sharers of the sensational, be it an old man’s private thoughts or a terrorist group kidnapping hundreds of school girls.

Or a boy enacting vengeance on that very sensational culture.

In terms of what led Rodgers to do what he did, I do not think culture is the number one culprit. I think access to guns is the most to blame (not even worth my time to write about), and mental health (see my last post) next before media culture, and we should work to create political change in that order. But that means that we ultimately do have to do something about our culture. I don’t care how fun it is to watch Dexter, or American Psycho, or play Grand Theft Auto, or share misogynistic memes, or ridicule the insecure on YouTube. Just because it’s free doesn’t mean it’s OK. Just because everybody does it doesn’t mean it’s OK. Evolution has not prepared us to be viral beings. And as I watch the tragedies hit closer and closer to home, I’m preparing myself to say, enough with my complicity.

To say, as fun as it might be to be able to shoot a gun at a shooting range, if it means that somebody can use it to kill people in a fit of rage, I am willing to sacrifice my right to ever shoot one again, and will do so of my own accord until it is law.

To say, as great as R-rated movies or M-rated movies are as works of art or storytelling, if it means that somebody who is less able to discern fact from fiction can be inspired to enact violence in real life, I am willing to sacrifice my right to watch them without passing something like a psychological exam, and will sacrifice of my own accord until such a system is put in place.

To say, as much as I love Facebook and YouTube for connecting me with my friends and my community, if it means that somebody is becoming distanced from that community and driven to depression by what is fed to him on the Feed, I am willing to suspend or delete my account until my peers in Menlo Park commit to an ethical transparency to their business.

To say, enough with my American freedoms, if it means preserving an America that I can be proud of.

Grieve this tragedy, prevent the next

In the aftermath of this most recent mass shooting tragedy in Isla Vista, despite lacking the time or means to fully investigate its specific details, I am nonetheless compelled to share some brief thoughts.

It’s perhaps time for us to consider the idea of “preventative care” as it is understood in general medicine as applying just as importantly to pyschological health. Why do we get a general body check-up once a year at the doctors’ but not a psychological check-up at the shrinks’? Of course cost is an issue, especially within the larger health care debate, but if we can agree as a society that the health of the mind and soul is just as important as the health of the body in light of this recurring violence, then we can start to have a productive conversation about ways we can change the role of therapy from rehabilitation to prevention. We can move inertia in the right direction.

At the same time, for those outside of legislation, healthcare, etc. but invested in education, I think we need to have a similar conversation about how schools can take on a preventative role. I suspect that the breadth of study that has been done on young adults that possess the potential for dangerous psychological behavior has identified a specific age range at which external forces had the greatest influence on their character and values. I suspect that age range falls sometime in grade, middle, or high school. For Rodger, it was age 15.

Remember D.A.R.E. in elementary school? I think it’s time to institute an equivalent for psychological health.

Take the subject from taboo to front stage and engage students in open and honest discussion about mental health at even an early age. Teach the importance of promoting personal mental health and also nurturing it through friends and family. Inspire kids to look out for each other in the classroom or on the playground for bullying or loners, make it cool to be sensitive to feelings. Instill in us all a responsibility to prevent our peers from ever feeling hurt enough to consider an act of mass violence as the only means of coping.

Seriously, if you are a teacher, counselor, principal, or equally passionate student, let’s talk about how we can make this happen.

One moment, breathe

On the street today in London, I looked up and saw a woman on the sidewalk in front of me, and a split-second later she was gone. I thought to myself, did she just disappear into the building? Into the pavement? Did I make her up? At the same moment, another thought: what if I disappeared right now from here, and there was nobody to witness it? Just the buildings and the trees? What if she were the only witness? A stranger, forced to make sense of a whole life in the blink of an eye? Instead that was my responsibility on that sidewalk, and half a day later I’m still reeling from the implications of my delusion.

Which by some inevitable string led me back here. Because a blog is a split-second peek at the grand narrative of a life in which some infinities are more important than others. And to write is to suddenly thrust upon yourself that responsibility, to make sense of the infinity between your last post and now. For the most active of bloggers the span of a day is quite manageable to sort through. For those who don’t blog or journal at all, there is only one infinity to worry about, and that’s forever from now. But for me, well. My last post here was almost a year and a half ago. The scale of the infinity I necessarily must address in a split-second. The lengths I go to to make my life incredibly difficult for myself.

It is what it is. This behemoth of a blog is covered in rust and broken links but it’s about to get a new layer of dust. Mostly here, in the essay section, which is I suppose the closest to my pure conscience. (I have been writing in a journal since January so the challenge is not too great for the future-me to make sense of this chapter of my life (Though even that is coming to a close. (Read: close, not end. A bookmark, a book laid open upside down on the desk, to be picked up again.)) (All precious things fade in and out of relevance but must never be lost.))

Other sections are bursting at the edges. The photography and film world I’m going to wait to update until my Eurotrip film project wraps up and let that be a massive, massive post, probably with a collage of photos as well. Prose and poetry also took on a life of its own with How To Be Close and my 365 Twitter project, so I’ll rope that back in once those have fully run their course. Portraits should be seeing some new life with the friends I’ve made on this trip. Music and links, we’ll see. I promised myself I’d make some music before the end of this trip so hopefully I can stick to my promise. Design is definitely its own monster now through Cloud Architecture, which you can follow on its own dedicated adventure.

And so this behemoth has stumbled over its own irrelevance for much of its existence. But any creature you’ve created is worth saving, if only to save it from the tragedy of disappearance. Within its clumsy framework is a kind of perfection. A square is really just letting you know that a circle is there.

And now look at all the pretty squares there are, among the clouds.

Resolve

It’s 11:30pm — half an hour to go in 2012. I’m at home, Skyping with Lilly, spending time reminiscing about the best thing that has happened in our lives — each other.

Last year I wrote an essay called “The Tree of Life” on the Tuesday Rhetoric section of my blog. I was determined to write an essay like that every year, to impart some piece of wisdom I gained to the vast, listening audience out there on the interwebs. It’s the same calling that writers and artists experience, to materialize some part of their body, their soul, for the world to take or leave.

In 2012, I realized that nobody was listening. I felt lonely, dispirited, anxious, depressed. I had the project of a lifetime, and a seemingly perfect career at Stanford, but I was losing touch with people, losing friends, losing compassion. I had given up on love. The cynicism in me about society, culture, the state of the world, our generation of blind faith, death, broke me down to the point that I would find myself crying in bed without knowing why.

Two important things happened. One, I reached out to a close friend, on the other side of the world, for consolation in my darkest hour. I began to write, fervently, about my life, to her in letters. These were not blog posts, they were not tweets. These were words only one person would ever read. I put the pages in a package and shipped them on their way, and somehow a burden slipped off my shoulders. I was no longer writing with a megaphone. I was writing with a pen, and I suddenly realized what I was lacking — the fundamental feeling of connection. She sent me back letters, weeks later, telling me about her life, and the simplest act of friendship became my salvation.

Two, I treated myself to happiness. I was done with starving myself of rewards, with burdening myself with suffering that I felt I deserved. For the first time in my life I had a panic attack, and I really thought I was going to suffocate in my own home. I realized that I was on a path to real illness, and that in the everlasting battle between money and time, time was starting to become a bit more important. My personal mental health became a priority for the first time in my life. I paid for concerts, for good meals, for trips. I went to Burning Man and discovered a community I could call my own. When I met Lilly, I knew instantly that she was the best thing to ever happen to me, and I put our time together before everything.

At the start of 2012 I had the resolve to make my life as efficient as possible. To become a cold-hearted working machine. And that happened, and for a while I thought I had everything I needed. At the end of 2012, writing this, I wonder how I could be so far off. I had given up on the two things I thought were unnecessary, two things I really needed: compassion and happiness. And it was only after I rediscovered these two that I could open my life up to love.

My resolution in 2013? To stay healthy, both body and soul. And to love without limit.

Twenty

This week, it’s all about the little things.

Like looping around the terminals at SFO so many times while waiting to pick up one of your friends at the baggage claim, you realize you are not unlike her suitcase, going round and round the conveyor belt, going round and round the road, except where it is a burden to her you will be the lift, the one to bring her back home to where she belongs.

Or playing “Blue Sky Black Death” on the 280 South from Berkeley and realizing that the fundamental reason you like bands because they make the music you would make if you had your own band, and that the same can actually be said for all art, and architecture, and people, too.

Like downloading an SMS Backup app on your phone and finally being able to save thousands of text messages onto your computer, inadvertently looking back on some old conversations with a hint of sadness. Or slicing and dicing assorted colors of bell peppers with a friend for a Chinese-Italian pasta and deciding that you should really cook with your parents more when you go back home, or more importantly, should just go back home more. Like writing an email to a professor explaining how disappointed you were at the lack of quality of your own work this past quarter as a result of all your projects and commitments, and realizing with the hit of “Reply” that you have finally reached the limit you have been searching for since freshman year, and that that in fact is the freedom you have been been searching for. Or climbing up on the catwalks of the unfinished Bing Concert Hall and feeling your heart skip a beat when the concrete and steel and construction workers come into view, just like it did when you stepped into the most beautiful home in Portola Valley you’ve ever seen, or when you found yourself on the edge of the Berkeley Memorial Stadium nearing retrofit completion exactly where you were two years before, and knowing this means you’re doing what you love to do.

Even love, in this frame of mind, can be seen as a little thing. Possibly the smallest thing.

What we find, then, is that all the little things that happen in our lives become memories which grow over time and become stories, which are much bigger than the things themselves. And at the end of it all, when every-little-thing is gone, we find that all we really have are stories to make us believe the life we led was one worth leading.

This is why storytelling is so important. This is why remembering is so important.

I almost forgot my own birthday–a friend asked me “What are you doing Monday?” and I answered “Nothing” without even thinking. It took me a moment to realize that on Monday I put an end to two decades of my life. I can think back to being nine years old in fourth grade, in public elementary school, making California mission models and drinking orange soda and falling in love, feeling scared and excited. I don’t think I’ve ever stopped feeling scared and excited, nor have I ever understood the difference. The difference between being nine and being nineteen is as simple as trying to understand the world and trying to understand yourself.

But that’s exactly what’s bothering me, why I feel so uncertain about the decade ahead. These past few days I have been stressed and depressed and trying to sort through the clutter in my head, tangled thoughts that need to be straightened out, dead end after dead end of the hallways that hide the key to coming to terms with who I am, and why I do the things I do. To uncovering the single story of me that will be all that is left when I am gone, that explains why a nineteen-year-old took on the responsibility that he did, why he has so much trouble connecting with those he loves, why buildings make him feel weightless, and why art is the only thing in life he can trust.

I think I’ve sorted out enough clutter to know what’s been making the mess. I don’t want to be one step ahead of myself anymore, always competing with my own expectations. And that’s why it’s back to the little things for me, the bits and pieces that make up the bigger story, the only things we have control of in the moment. In architecture my practice is to add complexity to a design until it has become over-saturated, at which point I go through the act of simplifying to return to something more pristine. Similarly, I have reached a point where my life has become over-saturated with responsibilities, impossible promises, and premature meaning. Part of me just wants to be twenty and do exactly what a twenty-year-old should do. Forget about the lofty goals and dreams and this whole decade for just a fleeting moment and just enjoy what passes by in the blink of an eye. SketchUp, ketchup, catching up with friends. Films and books and poetry, eating and dancing and traveling. Pretty girls and pretty homes. I want to go back to the drafting board and start with what I love, the little things in life, and go from there.

Stop trying to write the story and let it write itself.

The Tree of Life

Last year I wrote a few essays as a reflection on the year 2010, and the experience moved me in such a way that I intend to sustain this tradition for many years to come. I strongly recommend it to anybody who wants to get more out of their years than 365 days of age; what about 365 days of memories? 365 days of learning? 365 of meaning?


2011 was a year of seeking. And this rings most true at its close, when I, by nature, collect my thoughts, reflect on my experiences, and try my hardest to make sense of my life and its meaning. Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life was an incredible film that I watched this year, and besides bringing me closer to my childhood, it has also compelled me to seek a more illustrative, perhaps simpler definition of life.

This is my tree of life. I have to admit, it is quite an ugly tree, but it is mathematical in nature because I built it out of a recursive algorithm in which every node branches out to a definitive number of new branches, or alternative paths, such that a single trunk diverges into hundreds upon thousands of individual directions.

Choice is how I believe life works. You are born into this world and, given your socioeconomic and family circumstances, begin a fairly predetermined path of life: the vertical line. This is not the time or place to get into the argument on nature vs. nurture; the point is that at early development, you have not yet grasped the concept of personal choice. And so you take your first steps in life as a care-free child, guided mostly by the environment and people around you, until one day you find you have to make the first major decision in your life.

Maybe you’re in the playground, and a girl your age is sitting on the metal pony, chewing on her thumb. What do you do? Walk over and hold her hand? Walk over and push her off the pony? Walk away? Maybe your parents take you to Toys ‘R’ Us for the very first time, and as your mother sets you down, you find a series of aisles before you. Do you walk down the video game aisle? The puzzle and board game aisle? The Barbie doll aisle? Or maybe you’re running in the backyard and you see that your older sister left the gate open. Do you keep running? Do you go inside the house? Do you venture out the gate for the first time? Careful–your first choice in life could be your last.

Every choice you make takes you down a new path which leads to a lifetime more of unique circumstances, unique choices. There’s no turning back on this tree; where you turn is where you go.

Some forks in the road lead to good, some lead to better. Some forks lead to bad, some lead to worse. Some lead, unfortunately, to an untimely end. (What if more than half of all paths are an untimely end? Does that make you feel scared or lucky?) For most, it’s really hard to say. And far enough down the line, when the leaves are green and you have seen most of what life has to offer, you might wonder how many other lives you could have led, had you taken different turns on all the forks in the road.

So maybe on your death bed, if you traced your life through the tree, you’d see something like the image on the right; one unique path for every set of decisions, no two endings the same. If you organize your tree as a spectrum so that the left-most paths are more liberal and the right-most paths are more conservative, or the left-most paths are more altruistic and the right-most paths are more selfish, where would your path be? Would every decision ever-so-slightly lean towards the left, so that over decades you find yourself more open-minded than you could have ever imagined? Or do you consciously take the path of greed through life? Or are you straight down the middle?

Is that the fastest way to the end, perhaps?

One thing you should know about me is that I am obsessed with existentialism. And as of late I have been playing with this specific theory a lot in my head. 2011 made me realize, more than any other year of my life, that the unique path I took to get from 1992 to now was not trivial. The reason I realized this in 2011 is because in 2011 I began to think about my future family, and the kids I hope to one day have. Assuming optimistically that I have a pretty successful future, and that I can raise my kids in a better environment than I was raised, how can I ensure that my kids will find the same success that I have achieved? How can I recreate the experiences of my life such that my kids develop the same value system, the same morals, the same self discipline and compassion for others? How can you ever look into your kids’ eyes and know for sure that they are of good nature? How can you know that they will not turn into delinquents, thieves, or worst of all, people without purpose?

This is when I started to think about paths, and the tree, and my own forks in the road. What if you are defined not by what you do, but by what you didn’t do?

  • In 1997, I attended a meeting with my mom at my preschool, where my teacher reviewed my grades and my writing and my artwork and concluded that I did not need to go through kindergarten, and could skip to first grade. Because I didn’t go to kindergarten, my mom put me in a Christian private school in Eagle Rock, and for the rest of my childhood I was a year younger than my peers, a year more naive. The only way I could cope was by being so confident and determined that nobody would ever notice I was younger. This is why I am mature for my age, and why I get along better with older people.
  • In 1999, I was sent to the principal’s office for the fourth time in a month. And for the fourth time in a month, I forged my mother’s signature on my misconduct slip so that my parents would never know. When my principal brought them in one day out of suspicion of my forgery, they lied on my behalf and said they had signed so that I would not get into more trouble. This sacrifice, above any possible punishment, made me realize the errors of my mistakes. Because I didn’t do the honest thing, I found the path to righteousness.
  • In 2000, on the last day of third grade, the girl I loved whispered into my ear the simple question, “Do you like me?” When I said yes, she whispered back, “I like you too.” That was the last day I ever saw her; my family moved to Arcadia so I could have a better education. Because I didn’t express my feelings for her day by day for three whole years until it was too late, out of fear of rejection, I lost my chance at my first meaningful relationship, and consequently I lost my ability to express my feelings to the ones I love. 
  • In 2001, I found out that one of my best friends from my private Christian school was run over by a lady who had lost control of her car while pulling into the pick-up lane in front of the school. He was stuck under the car with a fractured hip until a group of eighth graders miraculously lifted the car and rescued him, but to this day he suffers from a limp. Because I didn’t stay at Eagle Rock I might have avoided the same fate. But because I didn’t stay at Eagle Rock, I wasn’t there by his side to help him.
  • In 2003, I made the conscious decision to find a new group of friends. For two years of middle school I had hung out with the ‘cool’ kids because of my social insecurities. In seventh grade I realized that I was losing a grasp of who I am, and that I was potentially headed down a path to gangs, drugs, and violence. I didn’t choose that path, and I found somebody who shared the same passions and morals as me to build a new friendship. To this day he is still my best friend.
  • In 2007, I didn’t participate in Robotics Team or Government Team so that I could participate in Varsity Percussion. Percussion, as a result, taught me everything I needed know about leadership, passion, and perseverance.
  • In 2009, I didn’t wait to see if I would get off the wait list for Harvard, Cornell, or Princeton, and submitted my Statement of Intent to Register for Stanford University.
  • In 2010, I didn’t settle for one or the other, and I declared a double major in Civil Engineering and Architectural Design.
  • In 2011, I didn’t see past my selfishness and insecurities, and I lost the single most important relationship of my life.
  • In 2011, I didn’t let alcohol or drugs get in the way of my academic goals.

You may wonder, though, what the significance is of choices we didn’t make. Isn’t every choice you didn’t make, conversely, a choice you did make? Yes, but that’s not the point.

What is important is that, for a moment, you were staring down a path to a future you did not want. You were staring a challenge straight in the eye. And in that singular moment, when you said “NO” loud and clear in your mind, you were saying “I”. You were more yourself than you could ever be. You were living deliberately.

And so a path is traced, and millions of others fade to grey.

When it comes to parenting, I believe the same is true. I do not believe that parents should dictate what paths their kids take in life. However, I think it is very important that they make themselves heard when they feel their children are headed down the wrong paths, or hanging out with the wrong kinds of people. Although these assumptions may be incorrect, they are likely based off of credible experiences; as lucid as you are in that moment when you say “NO”, hindsight as an adult is even clearer because you can witness the real-life consequences of those who only had the strength to say, “WHY NOT?”

In 2011, I worked harder than I have ever worked in my life. And as a result, I did not spend nearly as much time as I should have building relationships or reflecting upon them. And so this winter break, I felt that it was important to rekindle the friendships that were meaningful to me, in hopes that they may lead to discoveries about who I am, and how I got where I am. Some relationships I have been able to rebuild, others I hope to soon, others I will never have the strength to. But most of all in this short time, I have gained sight of the vast diversity of paths that a small group of people my age has taken in just a few short years out of high school. I can’t wrap my head around the richness of the human experience. But what I can understand, more and more, is how I differ from others because of the paths I did not take. And in that difference, in that separation, I am uncovering the most about who I am. My strength lies in my moral convictions and my resistance to conformity. My life, above all, is defined by the lessons of the past. And my future will depend on the sharpening of my foresight.

The tree of life is not a solution to anything; it is simply a change of perspective. Hopefully it can help you make sense of your past, as it has for me, and help you gain hold of your strongest values and ideals. Maybe it will help you be grateful of where you are in the present, in comparison to where you could possibly be had you gone down the wrong paths. And maybe it will give you bearing on what is important to you in the future, perhaps what you might want to focus on as the time for New Year’s Resolutions fast approaches.

Many times in my life I have tried to uncover the meaning of life. Well, at the end of 2011, all I can say is that I have yet another possible definition.

What if the meaning of life is written into the leaves of all the paths you didn’t take in the tree of life? Maybe that’s why the meaning of life is so unknowable, and always will be.