Living as a work of art

Before I came to Duke, I had a certain assumption about the college experience: I would finally be able to spend most of my time doing things I really love, and while it would still take a lot of effort, I would doing it and being able to balance my commitments with a sense of clarity and confidence. The first part of my assumption turned out to be true. I’m still trying to figure out the second part.

After a relaxed fall semester at Duke, I decided to focus more on science and career preparation in the spring. I reaped both the rewards and the consequences of it: I learned so much more fascinating content in the same time frame, but I was put off by the sheer amount of work and fast pace of learning. I cut back on exercise and staying in touch with friends—activities I enjoyed outside of class and work—just to meet the next deadline.

While I have an intrinsic interest in my academics, it’s hard not to feel like I’m just going through the motions and stretching myself with these inordinate demands. I miss the time just a few months ago when I could afford to read non-class books for an hour a day and delve into the minds of great thinkers and eloquent writers like Hesse and Gibran.

Is there a right way to “manage” our time in life in such a way that we feel we are actually working effectively towards a greater goal, without sacrificing physical and mental health and depriving ourselves of intellectual nourishment? How do we balance pleasure-seeking pursuits and academic demands? Arthur Schopenhauer wrote in The Wisdom of Life that so often in life one suffers from either boredom or pain. Ever since I got accepted to Duke over a year ago, I’ve been trying to shake off boredom and productivity guilt. Now with so many chores to do every hour of my life, I don’t have time to be bored, I have time to be stressed all the time. So how can we adjust so that we are neither bored nor tormented, but in a so-called “flow state”? I figured that I would naturally find the answers to these questions when I went to college, but at this point I don’t have the answers. Just more questions.

It’s been frustrating that no matter where I look and who I ask, there doesn’t seem to be a perfect solution for balancing time in college and beyond. But lately I’m accepting the reality that there is no formula to allocate all the components in life. I now see this dilemma with a new lens. Arguably the most important issue in art is balance – not aesthetic appeal, not “morality” or “lessons learned.” The balance of yin and yang, reality and the artist’s individual interpretation of reality, movement and stillness, sense and sensitivity. Just as there is no ultimate formula for good art, there is no ultimate formula for a balanced and well-lived life. In this sense, it is no wonder that the act of living can be compared to the creation of art.

As for clarity about life, which again I naively thought would be a guarantee in college, I found it helpful to recall a story I heard while learning about Impressionist art. A mother once took her young son to the Museum of Modern Art to see one of Monet’s water lily paintings. First she brought her son close to the painting, so close that the painting was only a foot or two in front of them. She asked her son what he saw in the painting. He looked at the blurred and ambivalent strokes and shook his head. But as they got further away from the painting, the son eventually exclaimed that he could see it so clearly. It amazes me how life works the same way. At many stages of life we ​​don’t seem to understand where everything we do is taking us, but when we think about it years later, we realize that even the most confusing times all contributed to who we are today.

Last week, while strolling in Brightleaf Square in downtown Durham, I came across a quote from Kate Bowler, a professor at Duke Divinity School and author of several bestsellers, affixed to a building: “Life is so beautiful. Life is so hard.” As difficult as life is, it can also be beautiful. A good life takes years of learning, adjustment and constant struggle. Just like good art. But rest assured that the jigsaw puzzles come with serious intention will fall into place and it will be worth it in the end.—Katherine Zhong, staff writer

Leave a Comment