A letter in response to my former student:
I am returning to your message nearly a year later – and I hope, not a year too late. In some ways, my belated reply speaks precisely to your point, which is that people rarely land on the same page at the same time. I’m struck now by the emotion in your message – surely you hoped, by sending it, that I would’ve received that emotion immediately. I apologize for having disappointed that hope, but I am here now. Perhaps we’re finally on the same page. Perhaps you’ve moved on.
A year ago, my cousin passed away, having given his entire (short) life to living out someone else’s dream rather than his own. And it was hard for reasons beyond just losing someone (which, by itself, is already devastating). The harder part was confronting what that means for me, and for the choices I make in my own life.
You asked about Harvard. It’s wonderful, in that expected way – lots of resources, plenty of smart people, much to learn from many insightful conversations. It’s not a bad gig, and certainly not a bad brand to attach to my name. But there are the hardcore academics who live and breathe to analyze someone else’s life and work. Then there’s me: Desperately trying to just live my own life and do my own creative work. I’ve come to realize that there are many different ways to be a good student. Harvard is only one of countless answers. Our job is to find the path that feels right for us, and not to cop out and choose something convenient or merely conventional. So, as I face graduation in just a few short months, I’m thinking about next steps. I’d like to be a creative writer. I’ve avoided giving that my full attention, but perhaps now’s a good time to do so.
I suspect, Karen, that you and I are fundamentally lonely. Oh, not in the practical sense. We certainly have good friends and a loving, supportive network. I’ve met your mom, so I know there’s a great deal of love and pride there. We’re lucky, actually. But when I say lonely, I mean lonely in our thoughts. Lonely in the clarity with which we look at people, because we’re always somehow analyzing, and not just partaking. Your point about some people finding solace in video games and shopping rather than writing is really part of a larger point: For a lot of people, it’s okay and even preferable to not overthink their lives. Some people have the capacity to just do and do and DO. The reflection part is incidental and rarely a true priority.
When I was younger, I was rather judgmental about that. Maybe I still am. But my judgment, I think, speaks to my own weakness as a person and not necessarily to the weakness of those who are different from me. A lot of judgment is (at least in part) laced with envy.
I confess that when I taught you, I worried about one thing in particular: That there are only a handful of people in the world who might understand your profundity and poetic emotion. You are smart enough and well-adjusted enough to fit right in, and even to help people along in appreciating your intelligence. You are perceptive enough to speak someone else’s language even while you think in your own. But even in that, I think the world will only begin to scratch at the surface of how smart you actually are. That, can get lonely.
I don’t have a great track record with responding to your messages, but I hope you know that I do get them. I do get it. And I hope you don’t stop reaching out, because I will reach back.
All my affection,
Irene (or Ms. Shih)
* If you liked this letter, take a moment to also read: Au Revoir, Les Enfants.