Columns

Malik ’18: Bedtime stories

By
Opinions Columnist
Friday, November 13, 2015

Night descends upon us much sooner than it used to a few weeks ago, and it’s taking a huge toll on my energy. I am finding it much harder to stay out of my room for much of the day, and I usually feel a yearning to go back to my dorm as soon as I can after classes. I’m not sure what the cause of this lack of activity is — maybe it’s the absence of sunlight after about 5 p.m., or maybe it’s the colder weather that also arrives during this part of the year. I suspect quite a few of my fellow students might feel the same way I do, for I notice fewer people walking around campus and studying in the library at night.

What should we do now that there are fewer hours of daylight, especially when we may lack the will to exert much energy? (I mean something besides studying; there seems to be no end to the studying we could be getting done.) We should be doing what nighttime is perfect for: reading, particularly stories and poetry.

Conditions during this time of the year make it more likely for us to face difficult, profound questions about life. On an individual level, literature can help us come to grips with these dilemmas.

The external world has become quieter earlier in the day, which leaves us with fewer ways to occupy our minds. Before, we may have been more likely to spend time with friends on the Main Green or attend events around campus, but now we may no longer find it easy to do these activities. With less to do, the mind can become idle, which can lead to difficult situations.

In a speech at Kenyon College in February 2014, the author John Green read a quote about the relationship between dullness and pain from David Foster Wallace’s “The Pale King.”
Green then said “The deeper, omnipresent pain that I try to distract myself from feeling might be the pain of meaninglessness. I think we have to distract ourselves from the terrifying possibility that our selves are without value — that the vast, interior lives that we lead are going to die entirely with us and be extinguished.”

Green describes the question of meaning and the fleeting nature of existence, which could come to the forefront of many students’ minds as the world around us gets ready for winter’s sleep. Other questions beyond “What is the meaning of life?” that could bother us include big issues of life such as purpose, morality and ethics. These could pertain to specific actions and behaviors (“Was it right for me to have acted in this way?”) or to general choices about matters related to Brown (“Why am I choosing this particular field of study?”). As Green suggests, these questions are always with us, but we typically find ways to distract ourselves from them.

So what can we do when many of our distractions are gone? We could, as Green mentions, engage in distractions that are always available to us, such as certain forms of media. Or we could use this time as an opportunity to engage with literature.

Many of the sources of distraction that can prevent us from tackling our “to read” lists are gone at around this time of year, too. And through the stories, novels and poems we read, we can find musings on the issues that plague us. The best literature (as well as the best kind of art in general) seeks to capture an essential aspect of the human experience. Therefore, many writers, in the works they create, address the profound questions of life that haunt us all.

I remember a very difficult time during high school — I was miserable, but my class was walking outside and noticing how beautiful the weather was. I remember making a comment to my friends that while the weather was great, the “universe doesn’t give a shit about you.” I did not know how else to express my situation.

In Fall 2014, during my first semester at Brown, I took a class about poetry in which I read a poem by W. H. Auden called “Musee des Beaux Arts.” The poem refers to “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” a painting by Pieter Bruegel, to articulate the stark contrast that exists between an individual facing immense suffering and the world around the individual carrying on, unaltered by this person’s pain. In the poem, I found the same dilemma I faced in high school (and during other moments in my life) being dealt with, and I felt comforted. To this day, I feel moved when I read the poem.

When deep questions feel the most immediate, it’s time to engage with literature to find your answers. Someone could discover that a novel addresses an ethical crisis occurring in her life. Someone else grappling with questions of purpose could read a story in which the main character tries to find a purpose to his life, too. I hope that you can find the time to read poems, stories, novels and all other kinds of literature, and that doing so will give you comfort during these (literally) darker times.

Ameer Malik ’18 is concentrating in literary arts, which probably explains a lot. He can be reached at ameer_malik@brown.edu.