I’m moving to Finland.
It doesn’t feel like I thought it would. For the past four years I think I’ve been operating on a sort of ignorance-is-bliss platform, which might sound ridiculous if you know me IRL, because I do tend to worry a lot. But there’s something about picking up your whole life and moving somewhere new, where you don’t know anyone and maybe where you’ve never been before, that requires you to really let go of expectations and be open to experiences. I have had people tell me I’m both brave and stupid for having done it twice, or that I’m adventurous or somehow able to handle things other people can’t. Well, that’s all a load of crap. I said it! Crap. Anyone can pick up and move, anyone can whisk themselves off somewhere unknown and say yes to new things. That’s the mistake people make; it’s not about can, it’s about should and want and how and when and why. Can is the easy part. Everything else is hard.
I know it’s ironic for me to give advice about letting go because I’m a total control freak. I admit it freely! But I also would say that it’s a learning process–it’s about practice, and I think as much as you plan and make resolutions and pacts and set things in stone, life happens and it’s impossible to predict. All we can really do is adapt, get better and better at adapting with practice. Live in the now.
I also think it’s about breaking down the illusions that weigh on us. The constructs of perfect society, the shoulds that have no meaning, the guilt that does no one any good.
I had a good conversation with my advisor today, a sort of pep talk. I admitted that I was really surprised and confused about the circumstances surrounding this grant that is allowing me to return to Helsinki (at least temporarily). It required a bit of thinking outside the box. But I’m starting to realize that life, in the macro scale, and academics and everything else, in the micro scale, are all like the Matrix. We go through life pretending that this structure we interact with actually exists, that the rules mean something and can’t be broken without consequence, and somehow we start to believe in the illusion.
I see this in science all the time. I’m constantly telling people that we as scientists aren’t trying to make truth claims–that isn’t what science is about. We know that our powers of observation and measurement are both subjective and limited. We test our methods and give evidence for phenomena. We’re not here to prove objective truth; it can’t be done. But people seem to have the idea that science is solid; science provides facts that we can live our lives by, clear measurements and data that can be interpreted meaningfully. Science is about math and physics and cold, hard rationality. But it often isn’t. Science when done by actual scientists is fuzzy and unclear, up for interpretation and gives different results depending on your metric. The bureaucracy seems hard and solid from the outside, but is just as squishy and fudgy as everything else. And, perhaps surprisingly, there’s a lot of humanity in it. It’s a very personal thing to depend on your own mind and its ability to take in information, to detect patterns and to make sense of them, to navigate the community and produce something of meaning.
It’s like the Matrix. And doing a PhD is choosing the blue pill or the red pill. Take the blue pill and you can go home, believe in the illusion of structure and the facts and the organization. Pretend that the structures are sovereign. Take the red pill and you see how far down the rabbit hole goes. The trick is, you can never go back.
I think we need a little of both, to be honest. We have to believe in the illusion, if only to keep society from collapsing. It’s a lot like the concept of currency; paper and bits of metal and diamonds only have value because we assign them value, because we all agree that they’re valuable. We believe in countries and states and provinces, in school districts and social clubs and in names. These things have meaning because we’ve agreed that they do; we need borders that don’t exist because we need to organize things, and we need to organize things to know who we are.
But the great thing about humans is that we can choose.
I’ve just gotten into watching Orange Is The New Black, and it struck me recently that the lyrics to the opening tune make a point we should probably try to remember.
Taking steps is easy
Standing still is hard
Everything is different
The second time around