April 17, 2012

The Realism of Idealism

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I like surprises. If there’s one thing that being at Cornell has changed about me, it is that I no longer ask for certainty. I am now very drawn to romantic movies in the fashion of Love Actually or Slumdog Millionaire, mostly because I believe that ludicrously happy endings are entirely plausible. In the first film, a Portuguese cleaning lady falls in love and marries an English writer despite their language barrier (although each eventually learns the other’s native tongue). In the second, an unschooled tea hawker stuns everyone by getting all the quiz show answers right because each question connects with a life-defining experience he’s had.

I no longer strive toward explicit goals, or as my favorite poet T.S. Eliot better expressed it in Ash Wednesday, “I no longer strive / to strive towards such things.” It’s a hard-earned lesson, one that I’ve mostly learned in transit. For that, I will forever be indebted to inflight entertainment systems. My 20-hour plane journey home, with cabin lights dramatically darkened, provides more than ample time for reflection on the exploits of semesters past.

Maybe I’ve become more idealistic.  (By idealism, I loosely mean a fierce, unrelenting clinging to a set of ideals.) That’s not an easy thing for me to say because, growing up, idealism has never struck me as a very positive thing. It held the connotation that this dedication to ideals involved sacrificing devotion to realistic concerns. To put it perhaps too simply, my pre-Cornell life was about the pursuit of certainty, which I thought, at the time, was synonymous with the pursuit of happiness. It was about getting a golden ticket to a secure, if not brilliant, future, and that primarily meant getting finding a good school and job.

When I thought about idealism, I used to envision a beautiful, tragic figure like Jay Gatsby and his eternal, ephemeral green light, or Lily Bart and her diamond-draped society parties. I mourned for them, and I still do, periodically. An alternative image that drifts too quickly into my mind is a generic one of protesters being battled by riot police with tear gas (or more specifically the activist concerts helmed by John Lennon and Yoko Ono in LennoNYC, another gem I discovered on the plane). But, as I soon realized, life imitates art, and sometimes the two are inseparable.

On the ride home after an especially disastrous semester densely populated with existential crises, I watched Virginia Woolf (exquisitely played by Nicole Kidman in The Hours) walk into a river, her pockets heavy with pebbles. I remember crying in the dim cabin, among rows of sleepy passengers, at three in the morning. At the time, I found it hard to reconcile how a massively talented woman who wrote to her husband, “I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been,” could have seen death as her sole escape. But it was far from implausible.

I still keep a copy of Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway by my desk, and sometimes, I read it aloud sometimes, late at night, just to remember how it feels like to be sinking into a cavernous, dank place — and to somehow simultaneously be overcome by a stupefying sense of wonder. As Woolf expressed in Mrs Dalloway, “she loved life, London, this moment of June.”

It is a paradoxical state to be in, but I came to realize something: maybe it is realistic to be a little idealistic. About a month ago, I had the good fortune of talking to former Johnson Museum Director Frank Robinson for a class assignment. What I remembered most clearly from the interview was the importance of believing in what you do, because otherwise there won’t be any joy in you, and that affects the people you work with or serve. I suppose when I turned 21 earlier this year I felt compelled to have some kind of life-changing revelation, and maybe that was it.

Former Oasis guitarist Noel Gallagher lambasted whiny rock stars backstage at Coachella a few days ago, “We’re living somebody else’s dream … This is the greatest game in the world … and it should be treated like the greatest game in the world. Be fucking happy about it.” While most Cornell students don’t exactly qualify as rock stars, we certainly do complain more than we should.

And yes, these are first world problems, and first world sentiments. Even if the world of college applications and internships may not technically count as the real world, it can still be a gritty and confounding place to be in. I was reminded of that when I looked at the deluge of anonymous confessions of clandestine habits and misgivings featured in the Old Secrets, New Hope exhibition posted online and displayed at Ho Plaza over the Easter weekend. Sometimes, being open to surprises or remembering that good things can happen may just be enough to nudge you through a particularly confusing transit.

Original Author: Daveen Koh