Oberlin Blogs

A Watcher of Things

October 31, 2011

I spent the last night of fall break watching Never Cry Wolf with my family. It's an old standard by now; I get an urge to watch it each September when the air starts getting cold and the bare branches start showing. I won't give away the plot, since I think you should go watch it yourself (it's not too late! There are still a couple more months of fall left!) but it involves a scientist who goes off to northern Canada to observe wolves. Once there, he discovers some things about himself and about the world. It features a few gems of dialogue, including my favorite: "I don't know when I became a watcher of things."

Being a watcher often implies removing yourself from the flow of life. Anne Carson, on Emily Brontë: "to be a watcher is not in itself sad or happy." Never Cry Wolf paints a picture of a man who begins to realize what the consequences of simply watching can be, on the world and on himself. We are changed by the experience of living, even if it is only in watching; and we cannot escape having an effect on the things we watch. The scientist, watching the wolves, recovers a sense of wonder he hasn't felt since he was a kid.

When I was a kid I read a book about the teenage brain. It described the incredible growth that characterizes the adolescent brain: the profusion of synapses, the connections made minute by minute — and a couple years later, I could feel them too. It was a time of incredible wonder, middle school (and trauma and angst, too, of course), and I can just remember the feeling of making new connections dozens of times a day. "So that's how that works..."

I've tried pretty hard to preserve that sense of wonder, although I knew from the book I read at age eleven that, as you mature, your brain begins pruning synapses. You start to specialize, become good at one specific thing. A world of possibilities is lost. So I took AP Calculus. It was the standard thing for "smart kids" in my school to do, and anyway, I didn't want to restrict myself to the humanities. To be honest, I enjoyed it an awful lot.

Calculus was like lifting weights for my brain. But it was also difficult. When April rolled around, I was mired in a mass of studying: Spanish, Macroeconomics, Psychology, and Calculus. Although I tried my best, it was clear that memorizing formulas was just not the most efficient use of my time when I could be memorizing vocabulary and reviewing the subjunctive. I got a 3 on the AP Calculus exam, which didn't get me any credit with Oberlin College.

Cue this August. The afternoon after I got here (an incredible, arduous journey in itself; I blame this decision on the sleep deprivation) I decided to take the Calculus placement exam. This way, I reasoned, I would at least have some math credit. It would open up options for me. I loved biology; some kind of math is necessary for a biology major; it made sense to take Calculus.

It was a mistake to take Calculus. Yes, I'm halfway through the course and I'm doing all right, but it's become abundantly clear to me that there are some things I was just not meant to do. Calculus is emphatically one of them. I should be ecstatic to be gaining a complete understanding of some of the topics we brushed over last year, but I'm not. In short, I'm losing my sense of wonder. It's not enough to merely be intrigued by the possibilities anymore — at least, not for me.

I'm starting to feel the need to devote myself to something, to make my mark, to observe and fully understand it, and I don't want to do it halfway. It was enough to simply be a watcher of things for a while, but I think I'm growing up now. I'm ready to start choosing where to make an impact.

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Responses to this Entry

Eleanor, thank you for your thoughtful, honest post (and the crash course in radical empiricism). I hope you find what awakens your sense of wonder. I can't wait to see the resulting impact (it will be Chicxuluban).

P.S. I am so excited that you are blogging with us! congratulations! see you sooon!

Posted by: Griff on November 1, 2011 12:06 AM

How cool
to sense that
tipping of the seesaw
from observation to action
from one place to

Equilibrium in the midst of

Enjoy the ride!

Posted by: Wyoming Mom on November 1, 2011 1:33 PM

Nice! Wonder and devotion are not always mutually exclusive...I've found that once I could differentiate between the two, I could also fuse them. Look forward to reading more blogs.

Posted by: Spike on November 2, 2011 12:21 AM

I had a similar experience with a first class here (biology) that made me realize that science is both awesome and very much not for me. I didn't expect to learn that from college, but I am so glad I did.

Posted by: Ma'ayan on November 3, 2011 2:00 PM

I like your observations but I wonder about the value of our experiences of failure.
An ancient proverb says: a wise teacher always learns from his students.
So perhaps: one who would make a mark will need to continue to experience wonder, loss, and failure.

Posted by: Pugsley on November 3, 2011 11:50 PM

Being a watcher is kin to being a listener. To do that I have to shut up. My best clown speaks no word,but watches and listens and is present and empathy happens. To me that which happens is a gift from the other - sometimes a touch, sometimes a sigh, sometimes a look, sometimes open arms. The feeling of trust, compassion, tenderness of knowing a privileged depth is just there. You are on to something good. Keep at it. Watch.

Posted by: Gordon Major on November 6, 2011 4:07 PM

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