Introspection for a New Year, Part I
I suppose it is healthy to sit down once a year and look seriously at life. The passage of a new year puts the world in its usual churn. We scramble to assess the year that just passed and, with even greater fervor, scramble to assess the year that lies ahead. We chide ourselves over past shortcomings and enumerate a new list of impossibles to tackle in the future. It’s a delicious cocktail of stress, this holiday season. I’m going to step outside it for a moment. What follows is very much about me. If me isn’t the reason you visit this page (by my estimations, about 70% of you are looking for lolcats), by all means skip this post. This post is as much for me to read in 30 years as it is for public consumption. I thank you ahead of time if you decide to venture forth.
Chapter 1: Work
The “work” portion of my life is whole milk on the questions and fat free of answers. I spend my days in lab trying to think of ways that computers can assist the diagnosis and treatment of disease. I was drawn to this field because a) I like computers, b) I have a physics degree (which was too much work to earn to let the math part of my brain atrophy) and c) because I want to do something that helps people. I’ve found that I’m almost entirely motivated by c), the feeling that what I’m doing may have some human merit. My colleagues seem to be much more driven by the technical aspects of this work. Is this a problem? Should I have equal interest in the tools as I do the outcome? I struggle to balance the overwhelming feeling of altruism (“I’m fighting cancer“, I tell people with unreserved pride) with the often times spirit-crushing tedium of a scientist’s daily life.
The mathematician G.H. Hardy touches on this issue in his worthy read, A Mathematician’s Apology (a copy is available here). I am not the first to embrace altruism as the motivation for my work. Hardy calls me a liar,
It may be fine to feel, when you have done your work, that you have added to the happiness or alleviated the sufferings of others, but that will not be why you did it. So if a mathematician, or a chemist, or even a physiologist, were to tell me that the driving force in his work had been the desired to benefit humanity, then I should not believe him (nor should I think the better of him if I did). His dominant motives have been those which I have stated, and in which, surely, there is nothing of which any decent man need be ashamed.
The motives Hardy mentions are thusly,
The first (without which the rest must come to nothing) is intellectual curiosity, desire to know the truth. Then, professional pride, anxiety to be satisfied with one’s performance, the shame that overcomes any self-respecting craftsman when his work is unworthy of his talent. Finally, ambition, desire for reputation, and the position, even the power or the money, which it brings.
I don’t entirely agree with Hardy. There is more to my drive than money, pride, and ambition. Yet, he cuts right into the larger issue that has me asking questions. How much of my effort is born out of pride? Why do I lack the pure intellectual curiosity of my peers? Do I work just to please and impress others? If I had to work anonymously, would I be here in lab on this Saturday before Christmas? These are not the questions which influence life at its small scales, but are worth asking. It is worthwhile to tease the ego from the altruism in one’s life. The latter brings happiness and the former is fragile.
Chapter 2: Play
(With depressing interjections from David Gray’s As I’m Leaving)
As I’m leaving
A change comes on my eyes
These streets persuading me
With mumbled strange goodbyes
I will be having elective surgery to remove a herniated disk from my back in a week. This decision has weighed on my mind for years. It’s common for endurance athletes to fall in love with their pursuit. We find our limits. We learn to suffer. We find vanilla, undecorated, genuine happiness in the years-long build of form. I take much more from cycling than I would ever want to publicly admit (yet here I am, publicly admitting it). I hate to miss one of my few remaining collegiate seasons. I hate the thought of my teammates racing without me. I hate the irrational thought of being left behind by the sport and people I love. I hate to be taken from long rides in snow-covered hills. I hate that I cannot win a race for my dad, who waits for me at countless finish lines and never cares when I cross. I hate to be away from the exhausting weekends, early hotel bedtimes, and early hotel mornings.
I weigh these fears against the thought of living with my back pain for unknown years. Both options are unpleasant. I hope I picked the lesser evil.
There’s no meaning
In clothes and coffee cups
Cheap hotel furniture
Where silence never stops
I’m already thinking about 2009. I put David Gray on the stereo and dream up grandiose training plans. Perhaps weights, Power Cranks, spinning, and new Conti GP 4000s will breathe new life into atrophied legs and longing spirits? Perhaps I’ll find myself on the wheel of a few good friends during that last lap of an A crit? Perhaps I’ll get the chance to take to the track and make good use of all that madison practice? If the surgery works as hoped, I would like to fire a warning shot across the bow of our beloved ECCC for 2009. It says, more or less, that it will be lots of pain to race me when I recover. Absence makes the heart grow fonder; ECCC, consider yourself warned.
And now I’m dreaming
I’m staring at the walls
Cars are frozen now
In late night waterfalls
All this might sound a bit over-the-top (the song lyrics surely don’t help) for a missed season. It’s not to me. I see my days of collegiate racing, collegiate freedom, and collegiate camaraderie as numbered. I know what the bike does to me. Riding makes me a better person, a better friend, a better worker, a better somebody. It brings me near things that matter and robs of me the energy to care about the things that don’t. The marrow of life is best sampled as the morning sun burns through fog and cold air burns through open lungs. I’m going to miss this taste, if only for a brief respite.
Plus, I’m really, really tired of having my dad wait at the finish line.