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Monomania: Now What?

On filling the thesis void and living well

By Joshua B. Lipson

It’s a strain against my nature to be a specialist. In light of this, general knowledge has always prevailed over talents, integration over searing focus. A hyper-fox with a pet hedgehog (actually). When I signed on to write a thesis for my Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations degree, it was only through my excitement about the topic that I was able to get past the trepidation. Would I honestly be able to allocate the balance of my mental resources to one massive project? And if yes, would I even want to?

Given the choice between focus and failure, I soon forgot about these questions and buried myself in outlines, microfilms, and scans taken at archives across the Atlantic. I let my other classes melt into a chopped-up slurry of assignment, to be processed piecemeal for minimal distraction.

J-term ratcheted up the strange undertaking by wiping the slate clean and leaving me for a month with only one roommate, a fellow thesis zealot, barricaded at my desk in the midst of the polar vortex. When days would go by without measurable progress, I’d become convinced, as I was warned I would, that the project was on the verge of implosion. And yet a few days after end of the month, a full draft had materialized under my eyes almost unconsciously. The last leg was smooth sailing, provided there was enough caffeine in the engine. (Now finished, I’m trying to fool myself with decaf).

When I turned in my thesis last month, the world seemed to exhale deeply. A great monomania, the like of which I’d never imagined possible, had evaporated, leaving a gaping hole that one’s supposed to think of as room to explore. And yet aside from the standard-grade senioritis—it’s not you, Gen Ed professors, it’s me—I found myself at a loss for what to do with my freedom.

Despite the freakish pile of library books at the foot of my shelf, I’ve gotten through almost nothing, save for most of Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan and a new book on the collapse of the Mediterranean Bronze Age (a dorky read of least resistance for me). I am hardly any better about social media and e-mail distractions than I was before my monomania. I try out a few dozen projects a day—trying to read more Whitman, play darbuka, and finally learn something useful about computers—and revisit them, only to have made haphazard progress at best. The world cries out for order in the midst of freedom—is senior spring the time to finally routinize? Should I go back to my thesis and try to get it published?

The coming of Spring has changed the game. Neighborhood wandering and bike trips out to Walden Pond have become possible, meaning that there are now options for immersive fun better than articles, books, and intoxicants. Focusing on the fundamentals has never been more intuitive. Looking to shake out new friends from the woodwork of this campus is quixotic; focusing on the ones whom I missed in my thesis vortex is life-affirming. New languages have a place in the next stage of my life; for now, I’ve got unfinished business with the old ones.

If my flirtation with hardcore monomania had come earlier—early childhood, let’s say—perhaps the thesis (or its four-year-old equivalent) might have changed me. But no half-year research project can break and reinvent old patterns of operation. If anything, the overwhelming desire to generalize shines clearer after the temporary monomania has passed—and without serious initiative to focus and relax, can become burdensome. Life now is neither one-tracked or chaotic. Now what?

Joshua B. Lipson '14, a Crimson editorial writer, is a Near Eastern languages and civilizations concentrator in Winthrop House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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