January 31, 2013

Life of a different mind

During my time at UChicago, somewhere along the way, I think I lost the meaning of the “life of the mind.” I got confused and distracted by the unending readings of Rousseau, Plato, Hobsbawm, and (add your own authors here). I began to think that by making it through those readings, attempting to discuss them in class, and hopefully finishing a paper, I was in fact creating a “lively mind.” In the process, I spent more and more time at my desk, and less time getting to know people. I started to lose part of myself.

When I first started my courses in Bologna, I tried to be the typical, great, everything-read-annotated-summarized-and-reviewed UChicago student. But I couldn’t do it. Not even the heaviest usage of could save me from drowning in the endless pages of Italian I had to tackle. Understanding the individual words was not the problem. Having to understand a book’s themes and ideas—that was the problem. I realized that no matter how hard I tried, no matter how many hours I spent at my desk, my level of Italian simply wasn’t good enough. I just would never understand it.

I had to do something that was unimaginable and rather anathema to my UChicago self. I had to go out—a lot—and talk as much as I could with strangers in Italian. The first thing I realized while attempting this is that I’ve become quite shy. At UChicago parties, I typically would stay with my friends, and spend as little time as possible meeting new people. Perhaps I am a unique case, but I’d say that this is fairly standard UChicago behavior.

Now, put yourself in my shoes. I’m living in a foreign country. When I go out, usually I know about two other people in the group. Everyone speaks a different language. No one else comes from somewhere I know. No one has taken a course that I have, done theater with my friend, etc. None of those connections I would find meeting with strangers in Chicago are present.

But my own shyness wasn’t the only obstacle I had to overcome. I had to habituate myself to dealing with various cultural and language barriers. It is incredibly frustrating to tell a funny story and have it come out flat and confused. Imagine standing in a room full of people laughing and having no idea what is going on. And then, of course, I had to get over my embarrassment at how ridiculous I sounded. Only recently, I said, “I put lemon squash in my tea,” instead of lemon juice—zucca versus succo.

Now, here I am, speaking Italian, even if it is riddled with mistakes. More than that, though, I realized that I have learned so much just by going out and speaking with people about anything. I am not afraid to start conversations with strangers. I am no longer anxious when I realize I have no idea what is going on around me. I am not afraid of whatever embarrassing thing I might say. I’ve learned to relax and let someone I’ve just met kiss me on both cheeks. (Having some stranger suddenly head for my face used to send me into a panic. My roommates still tease me!) These are all skills that I could not learn in any classroom or book, but that will inevitably serve me well every day for the rest of my life.

I think somewhere along the line the idea of the “life of the mind” got lost in the books and the shuffle of papers, got restricted to our desks, classrooms, and libraries. We must remember, however, that those are just parts of it. You have to constantly meet new people, try new activities, and challenge yourself to do the things that make you uncomfortable. Next time you are facing that choice between staying in to study or going out, go out—and don’t feel guilty about it. You’re just working a different part of your brain.

Noelle Turtur is a third-year in the College majoring in History.