I like to be well-informed. When I try something different or go somewhere new, I like to have an idea of what I’m in for. I like to know what to expect from Professor ___’s class, whether XYZ medications will give me side effects, whether or not we should actually be worried about North Korea’s missile launch… But it knowing always better? Does knowing about something always help or can it just make it worse?
I recently read a NY Times opinion piece (link here), that discussed a fairly obvious, but still noteworthy point. In the piece, author Jane Brody writes, “You’ll be much better able to deal with a serious, unexpected challenge if you lower your daily stress levels … When worry is a constant, it takes less to tip the scales to make you feel agitated or plagued by physical symptoms, even in minor situations.” Of course. It makes complete sense. A few nights ago while trying to study for a final exam, I found myself jittery and completely unfocused. Not all that unusual, I suppose for someone who had been studying pretty much non-stop for the past week. But what was strange was that only thing I could think about was whether or not I had been grinding my teeth at night. Was my jaw more sore than normal? If I was asleep, how could I know for sure? And then I came across this article. It should have made me feel better to know that what I was worrying about was trivial and that it would pass once I was less stressed, but rather, it did the opposite. It made me frustrated that I was fixated on something so trivial and that I didn’t have enough control over my mind to realize that and just get over it. Maybe unreasonable, but I couldn’t help thinking that ignorance was bliss (or at least preferable).
Then yesterday, one of my friends and fellow chemistry majors sent me this article from 1998 about the suicide of a graduate student who had worked for Nobel prize winning organic chemist EJ. Corey in the chemistry department at Harvard. A number of aspects of the article struck me very personally, as I myself am in the process of applying to chemistry graduate programs, and have spent a decent amount of time in the past few years in chemistry labs around grad students. Part of the article discussed how the student, Jason Altom, came to measure his own self-worth by the success of his project, specifically the ability to make one final bond that would complete the synthesis on which his PhD project was based. Reading this, it was so clearly apparent how dangerous (and potentially fatal as it was for Altom) this kind of thinking is. But at the same time, I realized how easy it is to become obsessed and to adopt that kind of mentality – to tie your own self-worth to something (a project, a career, a relationship) in which you have invested so much. At the time I first read the article, I was taking a short break from studying for my graduate organic exam that was that evening. And less than 6 hours before the exam, I was more stressed than ever. I knew that no amount of cramming would make any real difference, but I wanted so desperately to do well – I felt that I needed to do well. And I realized, that to a much lesser degree, I had adopted the same mentality towards this class; over the past semester I have spent so much time and put in so much work that I’ve taken my performance in the course to be a serious evaluation of myself as a student. And at this point in my life, that’s really all I am (or mostly what I am): a student. Even when I became aware, and realized that my attitude was wrong and potentially dangerous, I couldn’t help myself. Understanding only made me feel helpless.
I’ve always believed that it’s better to know, regardless of whether it’s good news or bad news, if the facts confirm or shake your beliefs. I think that knowledge, any knowledge is ultimately freeing, but you have to be prepared for it, especially if it’s information that is personally relevant. At first, it can be hard to hear something that you don’t want to hear, but maybe at that point it’s time to take a step back or take a moment to think critically and let it help you, not destroy you.