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New beginnings and old mistakes


Every year, I imagine what it’ll be like to arrive on campus — to be starting the new year. Memorial Church emerging from behind the palm trees, seeing the sun shine on Hoover Tower, running up to my roommate and doing that annoyingly enthusiastic but somehow entirely genuine “I missed you” routine. And funnily enough, every year for the last three, I’ve been completely wrong.

My SuperShuttle never drives through Palm Drive, sacrificing symbolism for faster ETA. The sun is rarely shining when I arrive, except for freshman year when there was a heat wave. And my roommates rarely plan their flights to accommodate this movie in my head. Every year, I think I know how I’ll feel, and every year I’m surprised.

Because I’ve been here a while — I’ve walked these paths and explored these buildings and had my share of awe. And yet I came back this year and I was caught off guard — because I forgot how beautiful this place is.

And it is beautiful, drenched in that gorgeous, golden Californian sunshine. And now it’s familiar and filled with people I love and memories that make every corner seem like my own.

And every year, I sit down to write about beginnings and what this year will mean. But every year, the person who sits in front of my worn-down keyboard is completely different. Now, I have to warn you — I’m exactly that annoying person who says “New year, new me” every year, but bear with me.

Because I left last year feeling unmoored — confused about my major and who I was and who I was going to be. But the feeling was bigger than that growing bubble of panic in my chest — because I felt like I had believed all these great ideas about civic engagement and the importance of caring, and suddenly I was facing a world that I didn’t understand at all. And whereas before I faced the same complex, changing, confusing world with the optimism of a true nerd, believing that there was so much to learn — and who could ask for more? — I now faced a world that seemed not only incomprehensible but better off left that way.

And I — who so obsessively followed the news that I would talk about the craftsmanship of The Atlantic’s weekly newsletter versus its daily version — couldn’t stand reading the news. I couldn’t see the point — in reading about the world or in writing about it — when it didn’t seem to change a single thing. What are more words going to do when nobody is listening? What are words on a page going to accomplish while the world barrels down its own path? What is one more column in one more newspaper that will just be trashed the next day?

But today I sit in front of the same old laptop — where I’ve written about college and this new country and my own across the ocean. I’ve written about philosophers long dead and politicians who have been running for office longer than I’ve been alive. I’ve written for professors and friends — I’ve written for myself and for Stanford and for people who will never see my face. And I’ve written endlessly about the minutiae of my life.

And I’m different because I have a better name for my confusion last year. Because what really confused me was how unyielding the world was — how it seemed like no matter how hard we pushed, the boulder wouldn’t budge. Like Sisyphus who rolls the boulder up a mountain, only to have it roll back down every time. And I was frustrated, because it seemed like all of this effort was for nothing.

And it was naming my frustration that made me want to laugh at it. To be frustrated at 21 — after so little, seems so ridiculous. To pretend the world doesn’t ever change — that it is incapable of changing — after one year of trying, or five, or 10. It’s like I learned nothing about scale from being a teenager who thought the whole world cared that she got horrible bangs.

Elisa Albert, in writing on and against ambition for Hazlitt magazine, mentions that for her, the important questions are: “What kind of person are you? What kind of craft have you honed?” And that really struck me, because those are the important questions: questions that are not about a day’s work, or a promotion that month, or the years’ bonus. Because what matters really is the person you become and the work you spend your life doing — what all your moments have added up to. The body of work you accumulate by really trying at something — your life’s work and your legacy.

And this work for me has always been of reading and writing about the world. And this work, it is all about the daily act, all about the building of a body of work.

In “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” Milan Kundera writes about Nietzsche’s idea of eternal return. I’m still halfway through the book, but that’s what I think about when I look at the hundreds of stories we tell everyday about what Trump tweets or what the Kardashians do. Because something that only happens once — it’s as light as air. Because if a tree falls and nobody hears it — or if they never think about it after it falls — does it even matter that it fell? Maybe, but now it’s lost in the wind. But it is in the living and then reliving a moment, over and over again, that we cement it in our minds and give it the weight that makes it matter. It is by telling the stories of lives lost or the battles fought in our name that we keep from forgetting.

So this year I’m different because I’m ready to try again — to keep standing witness. I’m ready to stop being so jaded and tired by the world when I’ve barely even lived in it yet, and I’m ready to build my body of work. To know that of course this work, and all these words are about creating change — it is — but first it’s about just doing something that’s worth doing. For every day where something happens, and for every angle from which it’s seen — there’s another column and another newspaper standing witness, making the world a little more real.


Contact Rhea Karuturi at rheakaru ‘at’