Thinking in Thoreau: A Journal Excerpt and Reflection

(The following is taken from an entry in my usually “personal” journal)


I took the GRE practice test today and felt like an idiot. I sat there staring at the screen and trying to come up with a concise, witty, and well worded answer to a question about the inherent biological differences in men and women as an automated timer counted down from 29:59…58…57…56. I was hopeless. All I ever do is write and analyze and I was coming up blank. This was no way to prove myself.

The math and verbal reasoning were worse. I struggled to remember formulas, filled four pages of scrap paper with uncertain scribbles, and started screaming profanities in my head when I couldn’t figure out what half of the choices for each vocabulary question were supposed to mean. I racked the shelves of my brain, and I got lost in there. I found myself spiraling downward as I pictured rejection letters and disappointed glares.

I was getting ahead of myself. I imagined consequences two years down the road. And yet, I still felt like a failure. All my life I have been reminded that I am one of those people who “tests well” when the thick envelopes of percentile charts and unfolding career wheels made its way through our mail slot. This time I felt slighted. I wondered (in a state of semi-panic) if taking my education into my own hands and creating my own major was the right thing to do.  What if it doesn’t lead me to “success” in this system of tests and darkened bubbles? We are sorted into categories of black and white. I invented my own shade of gray.

My generation is taught that we need to be constantly “profiling.” This is something Sherry Turkle points out in her book Alone Together. We lose sense of who we are in person, and focus on our paper selves (or our selves on screen.) We forget what Thoreau means when he tells us to “live deliberately.” I like to think that I am living with intention–I just don’t know where it will get me.

I always feel like I could (and should) be doing more. After 7 hours of reading and annotating, I’ll return to my dorm room only to worry about what the required Cross Country summer training work out is for today and how I need to reorganize my calendar. I spend large parts of my day alone. I am beginning to realize the superficialities of my generation that Turkle points out all around me. We expect much more contact and much less depth. We send hundred and hundreds of text messages a day, but never say anything original.

Part of me wants someone to read this journal. Why do I feel like my thoughts and feeligs don’t count until they are “seen?” This is a symptom of the digital age. We want to tell everyone (and no one) our secrets and deepest thoughts to make up for the privatized and hidden lives we live in the real world. Turkle talks a lot about “confessionals” online–the publication of our little lives and the way we make ourselves into anonymous (or known) celebrities. We look for validation. I suppose that’s part of what I’m doing with my blog. I want people to feel like what I’m interested in and what I’ve decided to devote my college studies to is worthwhile. Whether I want to admit it or not, I long to be “impressive” and to live up to a reputation I’ve built for myself–one where the bar is sometimes set too high.

Even though it’s likely no one else will ever read all of the thoughts in these pages all the way through, I cherish them because they allow me to look at how I’ve created myself. I can look back and remember more easily. I can retrace my steps and notice the subtle changes of the loops and lines of my handwriting. I can remember the way I interpreted my school work in terms of my own (often melodramatic) personal life. In “Alone Together,” Sherry Turkle interviewed a woman who decided not to keep a diary because she didn’t believe her life was “important enough.” The effort took too much time, and she thought that no one would ever read what she had to say anyway. This saddened me. The point of a journal is to write down sentences no one will read because it helps you to learn something about yourself without making an effort to appeal to the eyes of family, acquaintances, or strangers. It is the act of writing that means something. The most famous journals and diaries never asked to be read. They were discovered. Rather than writing between the fine lines of a diary, this woman chose to mail her secrets to a man who would put them online for all the world to see. A “Post Secret”  junkie, she sent her deepest feelings to strangers on 4×6 post cards once a week. She felt relief.

After receiving a coffee table book filled with pictures of post cards like those sent in by Sherry Turkle’s interviewee, I decided last summer to try to make a few of my own. I never sent any of them in, but glued them across the blue ruled lines of one of my journals instead. No one ever saw them.

My first thought embarking on the project as I sat on the cool floorboards of my childhood bedroom– surrounded by yellow walls and a ceiling fan that whipped my hair across my lips–was that I didn’t have any secrets. There was something that felt so wrong about that. There was nothing I hadn’t told to anyone. With texting and IMing and phone calls and a three-year long distance relationship that began with unending rounds of the “question game,” the thrill of revealing “secrets” was one I knew well.  I kept it up until I didn’t have any left. In a world of instant gratification, nothing is held in for very long. A week feels like an eternity. I told (and do tell) those closest to me everything. Turkle paints a picture of young adults in the digital age who cannot have a feeling without telling someone about it. A shadow of sadness crosses their minds, and they immediately whip out their cell phones–thumbs moving at lightning speeds as they seek instant comfort. I realize now that I am guilty of coveting this same electronic security blanket. Just look at me. Following a decidedly negative experience with a practice standardized test, I immediately dialed my home phone number, texted my boyfriend that the last four hours had been hell, and poured out every thought reeling through my brain to my Mom as she sat 540 miles away on the other end of the line. Even when I sit alone, I can surround myself instantly–all of my feelings heard.

For now, sitting on a bench in front of a screenless landscape, I am going to try to appreciate my solidarity. I will walk around the pond and listen to Beirut and channel Thoreau. I will let my thoughts flow and forbid them from becoming obsessive and multiplying lists. I will write letters and be happy that I took a day not to “work out.” I’ll play my violin and refuse to get worked up about “working ahead.”

There are baby ducks paddling in glassy water. Dandelion fluff whirls around my head. I will appreciate today.

This entry was posted in "Electronics, Emerging Adulthood, and the Environment" Summer Research. Bookmark the permalink.

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