Aegrescit Medendo?: Reflections on the Reconstruction of Self James Rice It’s just after two in the morning as I walk towards the Christian Center making my way from a late shift working in the library. I’ve grown accustomed to the sights and sounds of the campus at night, the yellowed tint among the nuanced shadows. Murrah Hall, where I’ve spent much of my week, stands brightly lit, as if to stand as a symbol for the troubled sleeplessness of the greater business world. Beyond the temple to the bus(y)ness, lies still more darkness. A few lights dot the way forward, buoys in the palpable night. The gardens, glorious and verdant during daytime, now seem dim and somehow ephemeral. It startles me to think that anything could be lurking in a bush or shadow somewhere. My eyes dart about, looking for some sign of hidden danger. Yet I know that tonight is just as any night, there’s nothing sulking about, nothing given freedom by the absent sun. As I turn the corner on the south side of the Christian Center, I know what to expect. Yet something catches me by surprise tonight. It’s not a monster, nor the less fictitious Reuben’s workers; I see a friend sitting at the base of a tree, looking out over the green space and the night sky. Uncharacteristically, she is smoking a cigarette. While I weigh my need for sleep over my curiosity, the magic of the moment takes me over. Before I know it, I too am sitting at the base of the same tree and we talk for hours. We talk about everything, which is to say that we talk about nothing in particular. Somehow enraptured in the moment, I will never remember the words we speak. Instead it is the image of a distant rich night sky cast above Jackson that I will keep burned into my memory. I want to be sitting here cradled in the base of this tree forever. Today, half the field is gone. Where once an old sidewalk meandered through the open green of that night now stand three massive wooden monoliths; dorms in the process of
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construction. Having a personality all their own, they stand as a testament to change. During the daytime, with the constant auditory onslaught of nail guns firing above, the agents for change have taken away the peace of that field. And worse yet: during the night, it seems they took some of our sky, too. Since as long as I can remember, I‟ve been followed by massive change wherever I went. None of my schools were spared from construction projects. In each stage of my public schooling the tell-tale sign of change to come was always the disappearance of ceiling tiles. As the Styrofoam rectangles began to go missing, their façade replaced by exposed pipes and wires, a visceral feeling of being institutionalized would creep into our psyches. It makes me laugh in hindsight, but in every year‟s speeches for student body president one or more of the candidates would promise us ceiling tiles. It didn‟t matter if they won or not, of course; the powers that brought such destruction of our comfortable little worlds were not so easily swayed by the people‟s candidate (sigh, such are the injustices to sixth graders). By the end of high school, ceilings were something long forgotten, a thing of the (seemingly) distant past. Inevitably some of our classrooms would be spewed into the fields behind the schools into industrial trailers. One school tried to freshen the language of our new space, but “learning cottages” never caught on the way „trailers‟ did. I say “our new space” but really it always felt rented, like we were transient guests. Once extracted from the main building, the changes within would go on without us. Today, when I return to those places of learning, my high school, my middles school, or my elementary school, I can hardly recognize them as the same spots I spent so much of my early youth. In a palpable way, the places where I went to learn have been since crushed by foreign edifices. It should be obvious by now that I relish the memory of these places before they
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underwent the change, but I was surprised by what I saw returning to these old stomping grounds years later. Younger, I was always looking forward to the day when the destruction would end and the building would be finished, but I saw the new forms my old buildings had taken on, I felt more alienated than ever before. It‟s ironic, isn‟t it? As much as I identified with a nostalgic sense of place, I uncovered an even stranger realization: the signs of change weren‟t the antithesis of my childhood experience, they were its entirety. Upon reflection, this is the best way to frame almost four years of life at Millsaps. Change is a part of our world. And what‟s special about change is that even as destruction wreaks havoc on our lives, causing us stress, alienation, fear, and anguish, it makes room to grow. As I‟ve mentioned, the Millsaps campus has changed since I‟ve been here. But though I‟ve begun to once again lose my sense of place to arrival of new construction, there‟s a different project going on at Millsaps that I have in mind to speak of: my growth as a human being. In spite of the risk of being overly cheesy, I might call myself a human becoming. It seems more fitting and I‟ll try to show why. When I first came to Millsaps I had scanned the course catalog like a hawk, searching for that perfect major. After rifling through all the information I could gather, I determined that the best path for me would be a combination of physics and political science. Not to spoil the story, but in four years I‟ve yet to take even one course for either of these two departments. Though I had a plan in mind, I was immediately dazzled by subjects introduced to me by Heritage. History, religion, philosophy, literature; exposure to these things lent me an addictive high, the like I‟d never taken from school before. Coming home for holiday vacation, I looked down upon my family for what I found to be a widening gap of perspective. They just didn‟t get it. „It‟ being
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something I could barely describe myself, but I was sure that somehow I was enlightened. Still drunk with the spirit of Heritage, I decided by the end of my freshmen year that I was going to be a triple major: english, philosophy, and history. Insane, yes, but it seemed a great adventure at the time. By the summer after my sophomore year, I had dropped any notions of being either a history or english major, but I was still looking for that cheap high from freshmen year, that thrill of the liberal arts had to be just around the corner. This is how I managed to have taken nine philosophy courses by the middle of my junior year at Millsaps and still did not feel like I was getting anywhere. It was at this point that I began to doubt whether I wanted to teach philosophy for the rest of my life. After all, what else does one do with a BA in philosophy but go on to grad school and perpetuate the cycle? The answer for me was law school. Lawyers seem important, law school prestigious as it is rigorous, and of course the appeal of the almighty dollar commanded by attorneys drew me to the conclusion that I must be a part of this elite sect of society. Being made skeptical by my liberal arts experience since Heritage, I decided that I needed a way to actually test the feasibility of studying law. Luckily, within months of the decision to be law school bound, I was awarded a Robinson scholarship to study International Business Law in Yucatan, Mexico, over the Christmas break. To say that the trip changed my life is a gross understatement. Riding around in a van across Mexico, navigating open-air markets, exploring ancient ruins hidden in the dense jungle, buying colorful hamacas off of Mexican prisoners, diving into water-filler caves called Cenotes, desperately trying to be understood by the locals in my severely limited Spanish, and all the while enjoying a crash course on international law from the talented Harvey Fiser; an entire new world was opened up to me. More than just one world: it was on this trip to Mexico that I found my calling to study
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business. There was that old high again, but this time it wasn‟t accompanied by a superiority complex, rather I regained a genuine desire to learn about the world around me. Barring comps disasters, I will be graduating in a few short months with a BA in philosophy and BBA in business administration. Could there be a greater disparity between two aspects of my education? Perhaps no more than that old plan to major in both political science and physics with which I entered Millsaps. Indeed it is this dual nature of my graduation credentials that attests to my schizophrenic intellectual nature. Schizophrenia may be too harsh a metaphor, but being a philosophy major does require more than one‟s fair share of going crazy. It‟s not to say that I despise philosophy, but I can sympathize with Karl Marx‟s insistence that he not be labeled a philosopher. What Simpsons character Homer Simpson said about his favorite alcohol applies equally well to my experience studying philosophy: “Beer is the cause and solution to all of life‟s problems.” Ought I to expect to have a wicked philosophy hangover once I get out into the “real world”? Should I be on the lookout for the philosophy version of A.A.? Only time will tell, but Steve Martin, a fellow philosophy major, holds an ominous opinion: “If you‟re studying geology, which is all facts, as soon as you get out of school you forget it all, but philosophy you remember just enough to screw you up for the rest of your life.” Uh-oh. From Millsaps I learned to be a little crazy, and that may be the greatest asset of my education. It‟s caused me anxiety to be stuck in a rut second guessing every one of my own thoughts, as philosophical skepticism broke free from the classroom and bounced around my brain endlessly. The world went from being black and white to being spectra of color beyond any rainbow. The more I learned about the world around me, the less I felt I knew. Yet my business education is complemented by this liberal arts challenge to the status quo, rather than being hampered. After all, it‟s the very lateral thinking training in the liberal arts that helped me find
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my newest academic passion. Trampled underneath my interest in business are those of history and english, but they paved the way to where I am today. And it would be an incomplete picture to reflect on four years of college without thinking on the sacrifices, the self-destruction. But also so crucial is that hope for self-creation held in that destruction: we make way for something newer, something better. Just as Millsaps destroyed a part of itself to construct the newest dorms, I have torn off bits and pieces of myself to make room for growth. One‟s sense of place can be associated with something as corporal as an old school building, yet it can also be abstractly found in the intellectual fields. I have tossed off parts of my personality, my interests, even friendships while on this tiny campus in downtown Jackson, MS, but always in the hope that loss and struggle may bring about something of greater value than that which I‟ve given up. It was two years ago when reading Pat Barker‟s Regeneration for Dr. Forbes‟ European Civilization course that I found the words that express this dynamic of self-destruction in pursuit of hope, and the confusion I‟ve felt in the midst of such a process: [He] knew only too well how often the early stages of change or cure may mimic destruction. Cut a chrysalis open, and you will find a rotting caterpillar. What you will never find is that mythical creature, half caterpillar, half butterfly, a fit emblem of the human soul, for those whose cast of minds leads them to such emblems. No, the process of transformation consists almost entirely of decay.1 Will the change be worth it? Will we seniors erupt from our (white and purple?) cocoons in May as beautiful fluttering butterflies? What about something more unusual and strange like large
Pat Barker, Regeneration. New York: Plume, 1993, 184.
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birds of prey? Somehow, I have a feeling that Millsaps we are capable of such miracles. No moths allowed.
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