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August 27, 2013

Summer Musings: A scholar's playscape

It is a shared desire for joy, and not an activity itself, that brings us together—whether when playing with others as a child or studying with others as an adult.

You are one of four people sitting in your house lounge on a Friday evening. All work quietly, sharing that diffuse bond—that fleeting, delicate, constant, delicate, polarizable attraction—that unites people who study silently “together,” silently in the same place.

This loose linkage is the kind that underlies and casts itself over nodes of total engrossment in sheaves of paper and laptop screens, only to momentarily wring and bring together the spellbound—only to galvanize them with the metallized spark of a shared thought’s blossom.

In this way, in this lounge, each of you is like a synapse. Lying dormant, you sometimes fire all at once, taut streaks of work and slack breaks aligning uncannily, almost naturally.

Fire. As you and your hivemind spend a strategic night in to fight the rising tide of your workload, hoping that you may obtain for yourselves the promise of future liberty to do “something else,” you’re really together in one improbably and impractically large foxhole. Unfortunately for you, there’s likely an atheist in this foxhole, being that this is an elite, secular research university and one or two of you are bound to be hard science majors. No worries, though: No one fights this war to win, and every student gets through or away from it in some way, perhaps in her own way.

There is no ultimate outcome to these skirmishes, in my view; there is only an end. There is no promise of carnage or of casualties. One’s grade point average may well suffer, but it will never perish. If you are weak, and if you let it languish, it will merely (maybe) leave you with a less firm foundation for the rest of your life. It’s not that that isn’t a big deal—far from it, in fact. The stakes are just not so dramatic, and an ultimate sense of tranquility should and often does descend from that fact.

That, in part, is why you feel so peaceful as you study. If you didn’t know, at some level, that it was all going to be OK, could you really proceed so calmly, and in turn justify that? This isn’t For Whom the Bell Tolls, after all, nor is it Normandy. That’s why the homework-as-warfare metaphor is only helpful up to a point. I prefer to think that you, in your lounge, are playing a war game.

Playing. In my view, studying hard in the casual vicinity of one or more brilliant people committed to the same essential pursuit as you are is the closest thing we have now to playing on a playground like children. The very thing that you, alone alongside others alone, are intently and serenely and intensely and sincerely doing, is what ties you to those others, in a way that’s intimate and oftentimes unnoticed.

Imagine (or recall, if you can) the first time you got all tangled up in a jungle gym, went for a swing or a slide, or took a spin on one of those merry-go-round platform things that are horrifically unsafe and should be swiftly banned.

You heard the laughter just now, didn’t you? And it wasn’t all yours. These playground experiences, inevitable injuries aside, are defined in our minds by the happiness they so broadly inspire. Yet I’d argue that this happiness is not strictly to do with the swing sets themselves. Rather, it is released in the course of the unbridling that these activities bring about. It’s not that going down a slide is an inherently fun experience. But it’s freeing, unfamiliar—an exhilarating escape. You have to want to get on the slide in the first place, to want that escape it brings, to want to get there.

And it’s that desire—in each and every one of its stages relative to the act—that means everything.

No instant camaraderie is stronger or more visceral than that brought on by the sharing of this desire. And it is this desire—in a more latent, reserved, and characteristically adult form—that you share with your studious fellows in your lounge. Your unifying desire to be wherever it is that your pile of homework ultimately thrusts promises unbridled joy, as much at completion as at discovery.

That, in case you were wondering, is why you, all four of you, quiet in your lounge on a Friday evening, are together a spring-loaded embrace.

Embrace. Keep pace with that desire while you can. I acknowledge, as the title of this piece indicates, that I’m musing in the summer; and that it’s easy to sentimentalize things after you’ve been away from them for too long. However, I’ll also add that I’ve always trusted myself to miss the right things and to know, with petrifying certainty, which of those things will one day no longer be mine.

Ajay Batra is a third-year in the College majoring in English. Summer Musings is a new Viewpoints blog that publishes on Tuesdays and Fridays through September 27.

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