I recently listened to Tommy Lefroy’s The Cause. During the indie track, a narrator describes loving someone who is too busy pursuing a nebulous, all-consuming cause to ever love her back. “You believe in anything you want… [while] I’ll always be smaller than the thing,” she states. “How could I ever be enough?”
I am a philosophy student, journalist and writer. At the beginning of this semester I joked to my friends that I would shed all worldly connections in order to live a monastic existence, reading texts, studying philosophy and writing non-fiction. It’s my chosen cause, after all.
What I do is very close to my heart: I spend Fridays away from Princeton on journalistic reporting trips, I eat out with professors, I carefully frame and reframe the questions I ask in class. I’m demonstrating the “intellectual vitality” I so earnestly boasted about in my college applications. No one can say I’m not a true believer, a true zealot.
And so I find myself, though perhaps I shouldn’t, sympathize more with the person who hopelessly loves the narrator than with the narrator herself.
The cause works like this: the days are long but the months are short. I read essays by famous and obscure, sane and idiotic philosophers. The pile of used books that I promise myself to read later is getting bigger and bigger every day. I’m dealing with eminent professors that I’m still a little scared of speaking to. My laptop, Muji notebooks, gel pens and cappuccinos are my best friends. I type paragraphs and pages over and over again trying to figure out how a good non-fiction book is structured. I think think think I always write. At 1 a.m., I stare at the hazy night sky as I roll back to my room alone and whisper to myself, “I have no regrets.”
But the cause also works like this: On a November afternoon, I look around for the first time in weeks and ask myself, “How is winter almost here?” Shivering from the cool air, I feel the russet autumn leaves crunch under my feet, the way the steep sandstone walls of the chapel bask in the golden hour light. The wind rustling through empty branches. The distant orange hue of the striped sunset. The moment the streetlights around Firestone Plaza softly come to life.
What have I missed? Do I believe what I whisper to myself?
Socrates famously declared in defense of a life spent in contemplation that “the unexamined life is not worth living”. So chasing after the cause is nothing but living this tested life. I don’t want to complain: I chose this life, this tried life, for myself. I love the thing Still, I can’t help but feel like love means I have little room left to love streaky sunsets, or the wind whipping my hair, or fall turning to winter.
Recently, over lunch, my friend—a fellow philosophy major—said to me, “I need to get a hobby, something I do just for fun. But the problem is that everything I record ends up being something that has to fit into my life story.”
I also understand what my friend is saying. When I’m not chasing, I’m eating, partying, chatting with friends, and humbly following the whims of those around me. Sometimes this inability to exist outside of the bounds of the matter makes me anxious. Sometimes I just want to laugh it all off and create a life where I’m grotesquely, unimaginably free, a life where I have no attachments and no substantive opinions about this world. In this life I don’t have to worry about the cause. Who cares what I think? Who cares what I write? But the answer is never far from me: I care, I care, I care a lot, I care too much.
Often the cause protects me from looking too deeply into myself; the cause excuses all my shortcomings. The cause tells me that minor weaknesses should not burden me. Who cares about a moment of panicked doubt when there is all analytic philosophy itself to go back to?
At other times, late at night, the questions come back, redoubled in anger and strength. Why is there no separation between what I love about my work and what I love elsewhere? Why can’t I be content with completing assignments and complaining about them all the time? Why have I allowed a vague, nebulous cause to take hold of my life so easily and so temptingly?
Then it starts all over again: A new, dazzling normative theory catches my attention, I need to prepare for a reporting trip, and I need to get those thoughts out of my head. The matter awaits. The examined life lures. And I have no regrets.
Joshua Yang is a contributing writer for The Prospect at the ‘Prince’. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @joshuaqyang.
Self-essays at The Prospect give our writers and guest writers the opportunity to share perspectives. This essay reflects the views and lived experiences of the author. If you would like to submit a self-assessment, please contact us at Prospectus@dailyprincetonian.com.