Colossal Mountains on the Eve of Life

I’ve recently entered into a love affair with the Myers-Briggs personality assessment. Last week, on a roommate trip to Rhode Island, we flew kites, ran in the rain, took the Myers-Briggs assessment via an iPhone, and lazed around reading aloud our results. “Good wholesome activity,” my roommate’s grandpa declared.

In our last moments at Harvard, we take a last stab at understanding the Harvard beacon of diversity in terms of our personalities, marveling at how differently we approach conflict, relationships, and our daily lives. (Hey—at least we’re not analyzing boys.) A roommate scrutinizes a website that suggests that people of my personality type (ENTP for those in-the-know) metaphorically climb mountains just for the sake of climbing mountains and not-so-metaphorically argue just for the sake of argument. She laughs at the veracity of the criticism and dramatically reads from another website that the assessment is a tool to bring our lives “closer to our heart’s desires.”

Myers-Briggs is indeed a delightful tool, especially entertaining in understanding how we might approach our futures. But I wonder about the assumption that we should aim to bring our lives closer to our heart’s desires. I question if most of us really know our heart’s desires. And I am unsure that, even if we can pinpoint these passions of the heart, it’s a noble pursuit to run after them.

Am I foolish? “Express yourself.” “Follow your heart.” “Be yourself.” Our Harvard education deeply impresses these platitudes into our psyche. The phrase, “Know thyself,” attributed to many an ancient Greek scholar, suggests that we find wisdom internally. All of this advice assumes that our hearts are good and our desires are noble. But where does good come from? Is not true nobility the sacrifice of the self, not the realization of the self?

As Harvard students, as Americans, maybe simply as humans invested in our own well-being, we believe that freedom is inherently self-oriented. We trust that we are truly free when we have complete control. But perhaps we are truly free when we have fully surrendered to others, or to God. Perhaps we are truly free when we have lost ourselves.

Lose ourselves? How do we lose ourselves? We are told that our twenties are the time to find ourselves. Our graduating class will push off marriage, and push off commitment, until we achieve some marker of personal success. Nothing is inherently problematic with this state of affairs, but it assumes that we can find ourselves or achieve wisdom through our own efforts. Perhaps the idea of “finding ourselves” enhances selfishness, rather than wisdom.

American individualism centers on personal success, and we often unthinkingly suppose that the purpose of life is the cultivation of our personalities and skills toward the end of our personal well-being. But how does this prepare our psyches to take part in relationships that demand looking beyond the self? How does this prepare us to trump the self in pursuit of the selfless? The mindset of personal fulfillment leads us to believe that pursuing our own emotional needs is the utmost end of a good life.

Is this kind of happiness, built on our own desires and pursuits, a lie? Are we even meant to seek our own happiness? Can we achieve happiness if our supreme goal is to be happy? Is the assumed imperative to fulfill our own needs the best approach to life?

Over my years at Harvard, I’ve been most invested in conversations about happiness and purpose, mainly because I have far more questions than answers. I remember a specific conversation with friends from across political and religious spectrums concluding one Saturday lunch (I’ll miss those taco Saturdays) that we should strive to be happy. But this conclusion is terse, convenient, and leaves little room for intricacy. What do we achieve in this world when we constantly measure our own emotional gain, even in the activities that could be most selfless—service, friendship, love? In the case of happiness, I wonder if the good is the enemy of the best.

As budding Harvard graduates, we are blessed with opportunities for fortune, profit, and relative ease. We have worked hard, we will work hard, and we will likely reap benefits, or “rights,” from that hard work. Yet when our rights to success, rights to happiness, and rights to ease, love, and justice are allowed to guide our lives, we pass over insight.

Perhaps our lifelong challenge, precisely because it runs counter to all of our education, and all of our desires, is to relinquish our rights in order to pursue a greater guidance. Seizing our personal rights is a tool for our own welfare, not an indicator of wisdom. It is a wielding of power, not a stride toward the best life.

And what is the best life? Attempting to answer that would be, say, like trying to climb a mountain for the sake of climbing a mountain. But maybe it is when we reach for the stars that we will likely never grasp. When we find that happiness is pleasant but that the quest for wisdom beyond the self is enchanting. Maybe it is when we relinquish natural control for supernatural surrender. Maybe we’ll never know, but it is a colossal mountain, so let us grab our gear and try.

Rachel L. Wagley ’11 is a sociology concentrator in Quincy House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.

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