Saturday, July 19, 2014

Choices and Distraction

I get very easily distracted. I had a goal in my mind to finish a particular task on a work day, but I ended up obsessing about the Malaysian airplane tragedy. I felt really affected, because there were about 100 scientists on board heading to a conference. One stupid mistake (mistaking the commercial aircraft as a military aircraft), and their lives are over. It doesn't matter if they were the most talented, hardworking, humble, productive scientists ever existed, or if they were one of those superficial people who are all about playing politics and marketing themselves to make them sound better than they really are, or if they were struggling PhD students/postdocs hoping to do some networking at the conference and secure a job, they all came to the same fate.  It really puts life into perspective for me. Heck, I could have been on that plane if I were offered to study HIV for my postdoc and were given funding to go to this conference in Australia.

Is this really worse than the deaths of the Palestinians in Gaza or Syria? I wouldn't say so. Being killed unexpectedly by a bomb or a missile is just crappy. Does the number of deaths matter? 10s of people dying + hundreds injured and thousands forced to leave their homes are not "better" than ~300 international people dead all at once. It's just that the boundary that made people felt safe (ie. particular nationalities, not living in a warzone) was shattered, all because the pilots wanted to (were ordered to?) save some fuel by flying over a warzone.

I recently came across two TED talks about choices: Our unhealthy obsessions with choice, and How to make hard choices. The first one talks about how many personal choices we get nowadays, and we seem to be paralyzed with too many personal choices that we ignore the big pictures about social issues. That is very true.. every day I obsess about what to wear to make a good impression, but not seem overdone; how much makeup should I put on? Should I go work out or clean my room first? What should I eat? Japanese or Thai food? Should I be reading scientific papers or a good fiction novel? Etc. etc. Sometimes I am so indecisive I can take hours to decide, or I end up doing nothing for the day. The first talk warns about this. Avoid taking these choices so seriously. Just pick one thing to do and go with it. Realize what kind of choices are actually important enough that they require deep pondering.

The second talk is about hard choices, which is also what I am facing. Should I stay in this country or should I go somewhere else? Should I stay in Europe or should I go to another continent? I love how beautiful Europe looks, but hate the difficulty in forging friendships. I miss the familiarity of home (amazing food! Yoga friends!) I know exactly where I can sign up for volunteering, and I miss the multitude of local communities that are sorely lacking here. But I know that I will still have trouble finding romantic partners, and have to deal with the local politics. Should I dump my boyfriend now or later? Right now I feel like I'm in a friends with benefits relationship, and that's not what I signed up for. But I do enjoy the times where I do get to hang out with him. Should I forget about my science career (too much politics, not enough authenticity and collaboration) and just go spend a few months in Nepal or Peru? Ruth Chang suggests that making the hard decisions and how we justify for our choices help reveal who we are. I guess I'm having so much trouble because I don't really know who I am or who I want to become. I'm too afraid of making bad choices. That in itself is pretty revealing of my character.

In the end, if I get hit by a car, or struck by lightning, or suffer a plane crash, or if Russia, US, or China starts a third world war, none of those choices will matter. But in the mean time, since I am fortunate enough live in a peaceful place where accident/disaster rates are low, I should keep on making choices, but not think so hard that I get paralyzed about actually making the decisions. I've made that mistake many times and it's time to cut that out and start being more decisive.

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