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The college life was an impossible balancing act.  I was expected to come up with new mathematical results, take a variety of challenging classes, do a bunch of activities on the side, and still have a life and be a friend, brother, and son.  These were the expectations I set for myself and, as far as I know, what others expected of me.

In bright moments, I was ready for anything.  These moments produced my most fruitful whims, such as taking graduate math classes or visiting a prison.  But in the times of weariness and loneliness, the poisonous angst of the modern superhero set in.   Why do I keep failing?  Why am I not capable of mastering all of human knowledge?  Why have I been sitting around doing nothing rather than ending poverty, hunger, and mass imprisonment?   Why am I not always happy?  And as Dr. Who says, “Am I good man?”

Angst is stupid.  When I was in first grade, I was trying to square some three-digit number with sidewalk chalk, and I couldn’t come up with a consistent answer, so I started to cry.   I can’t help laughing at what an idiot I was:  I expected myself to be instantly perfect at everything.  The funny thing is that I still think that way, some of the time.

The rest of the time I derive wry amusement from my own stupidity, because I knew the cure for angst the whole time:  Stop trying to be a hero.  Everything I have is a gift from God, not something I earn through my accomplishments.  Even the lofty ideals which I aspire to are a gift–they are the banner of purpose which gives me dignity in the brief time I have on earth.  The secret is not to believe in myself, but to believe in something greater than myself, something which will inspire me when the light of my mind grows dim, something which will stand even when I fall.

The good life is not a terrifying balancing act, but a dance.  The movements which I perform exist for my joy and amusement, and not only mine, but also for my peers and partners in the dance.  True vision is the music that keeps weary feet moving, and picks us up when we trip.  Hearing and embodying the music is what enables us to balance and execute otherwise impossible maneuvers, to walk the tightrope between pushing yourself and not overworking yourself, standing firm for your principles while respecting others’ beliefs, maintaining an open yet discerning mind,  helping others but not being their savior.

Art of a Mathematician