Climbing and becoming

life, existentialism

08 Oct 2023

5 minute read

Note: this post provides more context on me coming to the US and how that journey has been for me. It’s part of the posts I submitted in my application that lead to me becoming an MIT blogger.

This summer, I became obsessed with climbing.

Climbing is an exercise in creativity and fitness originating from a very simply defined objective: “Get to the top of this wall, in any way possible”. This flavor of activity reminds me of the mental motions to solving a math or programming problem, where often formulating the challenge is the easy part, but getting it solved is hard.

The constraints are undefined, you get stuck, and need to think about where you’re going or what your options are. You also get afraid, and have to cope with risk and the limits of safety and your own abilities.

There are stakes. If you go to a climbing gym you’ll see all these people going up these boulders several meters up into the air. There are mats, but it’s dangerous if you fall in a bad way. But climbing gyms are still a thing; tons of people climb, and you rarely see people fall.

People are good at calibrating on the physical level of risk they’re in, such that whenever you feel you could slip or fall on your back, your body just takes over and makes you fall off before. It’s wild! And a big part of climbing is learning when that instinct is excessive, when you should subvert it to go beyond what you can do.

I’m stuck on the wall. There’s a foothold on my right that I could use to place my body laterally and lift my hand to another hold on the right. I feel my body getting more and more tired and a fear of slipping creeps in on me. I squirm a bit and try to place myself better, but end up just standing there, waiting for something but not really knowing what. After a bit I thud back on the ground, and stare at the wall. I’m pretty sure I had to do that move, but I am also sure if I do it I will slip or fall onto the ground and hurt myself. It doesn’t even seem within reach.

I ask a better climber next to me what to do, and he goes up onto the wall. I watch him intently as he does the exact thing I was thinking, without breaking a sweat. I tell him I’ll fall, and he smiles and tells me I won’t. And he was right.

A year ago I moved to the US to study at MIT, and decided not to follow the other path I was considering where I’d stay in Paris.

MIT gave me freedom to explore and grow that is hard to obtain in most places. But being ok with my decision took me many months and was hard (reach out if you feel like I did then!), and there’s this part of me that still wants to be able to stay closer to my culture and family and what I’ve always known.

When I decided to go to MIT, I tried sizing up the options, thinking about the pros and cons. I was terrified to leave home at 17 to go to this faraway place in another country, and was unsure whether it even was the right choice for me, given the solid alternatives. But I was excited, and I made that leap, or I thought I did. I actually made it half way, and kept this instinct of natural fear and uncertainty for months even at MIT, where I sometimes felt like it was time to just go back home and stop. It was sometimes just really hard.

It can be easier to just listen to your gut and do the safe thing even when it’s not the right thing. Building a taste for who you are and who you want to be allows you to go beyond instinct.

Making that improvement is part of how you can jump to the next step of adulthood. I think a lot about choice, and the choices I need to make. A lot of this is overthinking, but also just me really caring about doing what feels like the right thing, even if sometimes there is no right decision, just different ones. But I think the heightened ability to make choices for your life while being forced to face the consequences is a big part of becoming an adult. And it’s hard! You want your parents to be there to tell you everything is alright, you want it to be true that you’ll be fine no matter what. But these things do matter.

And you can’t press redo. Without committing you get nowhere, and that’s a choice too. I am frustrated because I think there might still be a little piece of my soul that is wondering why I made this choice and not another one, whispering in my ear and creating mirages on false foundations of “what-ifs”.

It’s time to stop regretting. I am happy, but I am frustrated by my inability to pick, to choose, to live life and stare it down, to choose who I want to become and stick to it. But I’m not frustrated that we can only live once, that we have to roll the die and play it through, because that choice and commitment forces you to take things seriously and really care. What I’m frustrated by is that learning this lesson of commitment to your path is painful and arduous, and all I want is to be able to roll the dice and then look away with a smile no matter what happens because I did everything that I could.

But I made that jump, and it’s no longer worth getting stuck on the past, even if I can cherish it.

And yes, I could look back forever and stand on the wall, waiting for some moment of certainty, but it won’t come, and no one is here to tell me that everything is okay and that’s okay, because I’m (aren’t we all?) in this process of finding the strength to be my own source of certainty and accept who I have made myself become.

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