A college first-year with insatiable questions and a tendency for long-widened answers, I am acutely aware of the importance of small talk. It breaks silence, it establishes connections; it fritters away idle time. My prowess at the discipline is, however, a different story. Adeptly though I may enthuse about the departure of cold or arrival of sun if I run into someone on the stairs or in the Hinman line, give me ten minutes and/or the slightest encouragement and I will ask how the choice of curly fries illuminates the universe at large. I intuit very quickly whether someone shares my sense of humor and dive in—or not—accordingly. On the one hand, this strategy is effective: I have learned more and laughed more in the past seven months than, quite arguably, the previous seven years. On the other hand, it has limited me to a select group of people and select groups of experiences, a group that does not by any stretch of the imagination reflect the outlook of the wider world. Recently, realizing this limitation, I have begun to tear apart my outlook and examine to what degree to embrace lighter topics. The very addiction to analysis that necessitates a shift, however, impedes my ability to judge whether and how to move at all.
I need to change, I think. My abundance of questions alienates people. I need to decrease my intensity. To master superficiality. To “chill.”
But should I really? I respond. In this thought, as in all of them, my questions do not leave me alone. To what degree can I modulate my personality without betraying its essence, and to what degree is a shift to shallow conversation even desirable? Psychological studies have indicated that life satisfaction correlates with the depth of conversations. Meteorological commentary contributes much less to happiness than, say, discussion of to what degree Elizabeth Bennet was justified in her initial dislike of Mr. Darcy. From poets to scientists, romance authors to political philosophers, thinkers and writers over the eons have eviscerated humans’ general inanity but noted the optionality of acting like a sheep. If I can, I would like to live with the wool pinned up out of my eyes.
For every stance on inquiry’s worth, however, there is another on its utter foolishness: while Plato contends “the unexamined life is not worth living,” Thomas Gray (someone, ironically enough, of whom I had never heard until I googled his quote) countered that “ignorance is bliss.” Douglas Adams describes a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy character as “a dreamer, a thinker, a speculative philosopher” but then adds “his wife” would call him “an idiot.” Humans are split between lauding intense inquiry and decrying it, exhorting its ability to lift the human spirit and avoiding it in frat basements like the plague. Of course, puddles of beer are not (usually) the place to fathom eternity, nor should they be. But the road from infinity from our mutual exhaustion has many, many points in between. The solution is balance—the solution is always balance—but where to place the fulcrum and how much to weight the scale is a labyrinth of roses whose thorns I navigate with eyes closed. Ariadne’s string, I think, is humor—but there are easier tasks than finding a spool of thread in the dark.
How much may I continue to learn through experience? How much may I continue to modify by degrees? Can I afford to travel as the wind blows, adjusting the rudder but keeping the sails raised? Or must I some day soon lower the canvas, fold up the maps, and switch on the motor and GPS?
Perhaps more conversations will help me figure out the answers. Let's be honest: at least one will occur in a frat basement.