Why ‘I’ Is Not An Excuse

by kangcuzzi

‘To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.’ – Ralph Waldo Emerson

If there’s one thing we don’t lack in this world, it would be a supply of stock phrases available for dissemination whenever the situation deems fit. In our quest to elevate self-determination above the mind-wrenching, brain-crushing busybody nature of industrial life, how many times have you been told to cherish your time, regardless of how anyone else spends theirs? How about the notion of ‘living hard’ as opposed to ‘working hard’ – one might say it echoes the much-dreaded ring of YOLO – to live a fulfilling life?

Let’s be honest: I’m a sucker for maxims. Whenever I’m having a particularly bad day, browsing through the beige pages of Goodreads often rekindles my trust in humanity. Whenever I find myself fuming over my perceived lack of freedom (note: see previous post) at night, I tell myself it is not the system that matters but me. So goes the soothing thought that allows me to spend the rest of my evening doing whatever I like, fully basking in my newfound mental freedom and realizing I mean so much more than a set of numbers and results.

But recently, I’ve been thinking a lot more deeply about this idea of ‘freedom’ and what ‘the system’ is. My conclusion leaves me suspended on a tightrope between a rock and a hard place, perhaps because I don’t want to validate my own discovery; it destroys too much of what I have believed until now.

When I visualize ‘the system’, I see it as a big, brawling, many-armed machine with polished fangs and the stare of death. But hey, I don’t live in Disney do I? In reality, the system is significantly more benign. It is an amalgamation of faces, names, individuals, groups and all of their internal and external ways of being. It is a kaleidoscope of people. We often find ourselves regretting the existence of the ‘system’ because it is irreversible. The reason why it is irreversible is because we are the systemA decision I make today may irrevocably change the outcome of your day. What is good for me might not be good for you; it is impossible to live in a utilitarian utopia where everybody’s lives consist of rainbows and sunshine.

I tell myself that I shouldn’t relent to the ‘system’ by spending 5 hours revising ‘knowledge’ I will probably forget in a day, ultimately because I hold the concept that my time and the way I spend it means more than how someone else wants me to spend it. After all, in Seneca’s On The Shortness Of Life, Seneca himself writes:

I am always surprised to see some people demanding the time of others and meeting a most obliging response. Both sides have in view the reason for which the time is asked and neither regards the time itself — as if nothing there is being asked for and nothing given. They are trifling with life’s most precious commodity, being deceived because it is an intangible thing, not open to inspection and therefore reckoned very cheap — in fact, almost without any value.

But what am I doing when I decide to leave aside an assignment and spend time of my own accord? Let’s think about the teacher who spends his or her time studying the subject, teaching it and expecting to see the fruits of his/her labor from the toil. They’ve made a significant investment in time points to lead up to where I am, with this assignment sitting in front of me. The assignment and my knowledge are directly linked to their mental and physical, tangible and intangible investments. If I do the assignment – perhaps do it well – then I will be affirming the worthiness of their investment. The means through which they will arrive at their end of satisfaction from their work, therefore, rests upon my doing the assignment. 

So what happens if I decide to ‘live my life’ and toss the assignment aside? Ultimately, I’m disrespecting the time spent by others and, in contrast to Seneca’s ideal, demanding their time but to no concrete benefit to both myself and them. Sometimes, ‘I’ cannot be an excuse because it comes at an expense to so many others.

What would be the ideal scenario then? It depends, really. If the teacher is actually invested in whatever they teach and feel passionate about pedagogy, then the ideal scenario would be me diligently completing their assignments and, in the meantime, fostering within myself a love of the subject that provides me with internal satisfaction. However, if the teacher isn’t really invested and lacks a legitimate ‘spark’ for the class, then we would both be better off if the class itself didn’t exist and I could choose to focus my energies elsewhere.

But, as it always is in matters of people, there is a very fine line to be drawn. Sometimes you get a scenario where the teacher might blossom to the brim in passion, but the student intrinsically has no interest in the subject. Other times you have it the other way round. Infinite combinations to infinite degrees… and where do I fit in?

To reconcile this new understanding with my view of the world, here’s what I’m going to do and think and believe. For classes that spark passion within me, I’m going to devote more time to these subjects so I can fully grow. For classes I don’t feel so much of a passion for, I’m still going to work hard – but not overwork. If I come to a point where I am at a complete loss of any visceral feeling, I’m going to stop. Because there are better things to do in that time.

And in ‘that’ time, it is often tempting to turn to activities that don’t require much brainpower. Over the weekend I found myself victim to the insidious fingers of mind-blanking social media simply because I was trying to negate the mind-numbing effects I was suffering thanks to the assignments I had. Now, I’m going to try something else. Just because something isn’t related to academia doesn’t mean it’s a waste of time. Just because I’m brain-dead doesn’t mean I have to numb my mind before doing anything else. I am my own individual and I will be my own individual.

Now it is time for my to embark upon the journey to school, and lo and behold! My maths test is waiting just round the corner. But regardless of how I perform, I know I’ve put in a good amount of time that respects my teacher and myself in revising for the test – a true testimony to how I, as a student, as a person, am growing.

To end on an even lighter (even comical) note, here’s a video that discusses the oft-belittled ‘system’. Have a great day 🙂