On Intellectual Despondency

School is starting to seep into the veins of this blog, hopefully for the better.

My neurons are stretched, worn, weary, and hating me for having to do what they did for me over the past few days. For my information systems class, we were asked for the moon and the stars.

Well, not quite, but close enough.  We were asked to design a central information system hub for intra and inter-municipality-wide transport while taking into account nuanced sociopolitical contexts and processes surrounding the issue. The assignment fused together the notions of how information gets used, how systems aren’t implemented in a vacuum, and what needs to be taken into consideration when doing something like this. Hell, there was even some philosophy guiding the information system development methodological framework.

Never have I felt such a range of conflicting sentiments about an intellectual endeavour like this. My problem with the hard sciences has always been rooted with its abstraction, with its tendency to isolate things in a lab as opposed to seeing them in context, seeing their richness. That is why the notion of this task was exhilarating. I was bowled over at the notion that there are real-life scenarios where everything gets interwoven together and the world–at least the part around you–changes. I’m still thrilled that my professors thought that my puny little mind could take all this in and produce something that even came close to measuring up to the pedagogical grandeur of this assignment.

Thinking about the technology needed for the implementation of such a hub, of the need to address issues like the history of transit authorities and the cultural issues attached to owning and driving a car, was a delightful process. As long as I thought about those things individually. When it came to actually making the connections between these factors in the form of a proposal for an information hub, I found myself in the midst of a chronic, throbbing mental agony that came from not knowing where to start, not sure whether my solution made sense in the light of my analysis, or whether my solution was even a valid one that addressed one of the needs that could be teased out from the case given to us. I suppose the strain came from knowing, fundamentally and completely, what in a general sense needed to be done, but at the same time being powerfully aware that no matter what I did, my solution would only address one dimension of the case, and that I could only engage in the loathsome process of abstraction in order to solve this problem.

That’s what comes from being in an interdisciplinary program. Interdisciplinary is short for: you have no idea what the hell you’re in for. Some philosophy will be thrown at you in one direction, some IT modelling from another, some abstract management theory from yet another. Your mind will get a workout it never did before. It will hate you for the havoc you are wreaking on it, just like your body will hate you for blasting it with a gruelling Zumba workout after months of feasting on peanut butter cups and having your sneakers gather dust at the back of your closet.

Writing this paper made me feel awful not in an emotional but in an intellectual way that went above and beyond the “so bad it’s good” way. You know that feeling of paralysis, that writer’s block when you are simply not sure what you are doing or whether you’re even on the right track? Imagine feeling that while writing every sentence. I spent the last few days looking like I’d seen some twisted academic ghost. No amount of time, consulting, reading, reflecting gave me the “aha” moment I so badly needed. And chasing that elusive moment became exhausting.  Nothing can quite describe the frustration that comes from understanding knowing exactly what needed to be built, but to open a mental toolbox to find that I don’t have what it takes.

Although some fellow students are swearing off having to do anything like this ever again, and are basking in the afterglow of putting this behind them, I’m just glum. I will most likely pass the assignment (and hence the course since half the grade for it was riding on it). But surely I should be able to do better? Am I more capable of doing better than I did here? What assurance do I have that I’ll do better next time? Am I even worthy of a next time?

At this point I am probably expected to say something redemptive, something grand about how humbling this all was. It wasn’t. There’s no redemption here. Just despondency.

There is one thing, however. I learned from David Brooks’ The Social Animal that the biological process through which we learn isn’t about using your brain as some kind of a container, but the pattern of firing synapses between its neurons. Learning something new means a new pattern of neurons lighting up, and the more familiar something becomes, the less work is involved in following the path that has been charted already. So I suppose what happened with this assignment was that a brand new path was charted out, a process that can be nothing short of painful. After all, I was being asked to do the yogic equivalent of this. But now that I’ve tried it, surely the next time will be easier. I hope to dear God it will.

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On Faith and Possessive Love

A beautiful piece titled “The Sunnah of Love” seems to be a fitting follow-up to my last post. It’s not about faith and love and strange times. Just faith and love, period. Maybe that’s the rock we need to lean on in times like these, when matters of love are so uncertain.

What especially struck me about the article was what the manner in which its subject is introduced. It opens with an account of Ali (RA) who arrived home to see his wife, the Prophet’s daughter Fatima (RA) brushing her teeth with a miswak. He is seized with jealousy for the miswak, for this inanimate object that is the point of such focus for this wife.

It’s the first time I came across such an example of possessive love since Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, in which there is a passage that aptly describes Dominique Francon’s fierce, proudly selfish desire to keep Howard Roark and what he represents pure, intact, and all unto herself:

She was not free any longer. Each step through the streets hurt her now. She was tied to him–and he was tied to every part of the city . . . She hated the thought of him on the sidewalks people had used. She hated the thought of a clerk handing to him a package of cigarettes across a counter. She hated the elbows touching his elbows in a subway train.

We revere a person we are in love with or idealize as people revere saints, thinking about the things they touched, thinking about the mark they leave on the world and how the world so carelessly impinges upon them. The rituals, the objects, of sainthood that seem so arbitrary are born out of this love for what is holy. We can’t all be saints. We might even be skeptical of sainthood. But it’s humbling to be in a state of that possessive love, to be yearning not just for someone rare and precious, but someone who embodies some higher ideal we are reaching towards. We do it in a way that resembles the way we reach for the divine. Or perhaps we reach the divine through these temporal yearnings.

May Allah not let us needlessly long for someone who is not there, like Dominique longs for Howard. May Allah bless us with beautiful moments like Ali and Fatima in which we fiercely, possessively love what is already ours by virtue of His bounty.