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The Dartmouth
April 16, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Arrington: Perilous Axiologies

Society pushes you to do what the world tells you you should be doing, but it is detrimental to neglect introspecting on who you are as a person and what you care about.

Who am I?

This is a question I remember asking myself hundreds of times while growing up. I can vividly remember thinking to myself, probably somewhere around the age of ten, that I didn’t really know. I felt like an amalgamation of thoughts and feelings that had accidentally manifested into a consciousness and had no idea what they were doing.

I think that last sentence actually sums up who I was as a human being for most of my life. That is, until this last summer.

The axiology, or value system, of our society is very overwhelming, so much so that we often don’t question why we are doing what we are, simply because that is the way we have always lived and the way everyone around us is living. For instance, we are pushed into institutions like school or church, and then specific curricula are taught to us, and we have little agency in how we spend our time during those hours or what we think about and discuss. Yet we must take the time to examine why we are doing what we are doing, or we run the risk of losing sight of our identity and what brings us joy. That is what happened to me.

The mode of life I used to operate in, looking back, was very based on the axiology of how I was raised — and really, society more broadly. I was told that school was important, and so I threw myself into that. In seventh grade, I would do homework starting when I got home from school around four in the afternoon and would often work until eight or nine at night. Since then, I’ve only become more obsessed with putting my all into every assignment, driving myself to the point of literal exhaustion, so much so that I would regularly fall asleep with my head in my textbook reading: I actually once went nearly a week not sleeping in my bed because I kept doing this.

Organized religion was another institution that impeded my discovery of self. I went to high school in a small, conservative and very religious town, where nearly everyone went to church on Wednesdays and Sundays. I went to church with my family, but I often would not understand, or would even completely disagree, with what I was being taught. The church that I went to, however, did not allow for questions that challenged their teachings. I was literally told at one point that I needed to stop asking questions — and if I disagreed, I needed to do so quietly, so as not to disturb others. This reinforced the idea that if I was not feeling connected to “God,” then I, not God, religion, society or anything else, was the issue.

I do not think there is an issue with caring about academics, religion or other similar aspects of everyday life. However, I was channeling all of my mental, emotional and physical energy into these outlets to the point of burnout and exhaustion, not even because I cared about them, but because I was told that I should care about them.

And therein lies the issue: to constantly be overworking oneself, yet to be doing so not for any intrinsic purpose but simply because that is what others expect of you.

Looking back, it is no wonder I did not know who I was — I spent all my time on what other people told me was important, and never thought to ask myself what actually brought me joie de vivre, joy in living.

This last summer, I was put in the peculiar position of a forced reset. I wasn’t taking classes, and I wasn’t going to church, and most of my high school friends had moved away, so I was stuck at home alone, with an excess of time that I hadn’t had in years. And so, what I ended up doing with that time, almost unintentionally, was reading, and through reading, I began to think about myself and the world and how we interact in a way I had not taken the time to ever before. I started thinking about what brought me happiness, and then I started doing those things: reading, writing, hiking, taking photos, spending time with my animals and just generally being more spontaneous.

It wasn’t until I felt excited to be alive that I realized that I had forgotten what it felt like to be curious and creative, to ask questions and take steps in the direction of potential answers.

We, as individuals and as a society, have to take the time to ask these questions. We have to consider who we are and who we want to be. Our lives cannot be in a constant state of going with whatever the default is; that is how we lose sight of ourselves, forget the importance of joy, and end up undermining the value of being life.

After this summer, I ended up making a couple of life changes. I disliked so much of what I put my time and energy into that I didn’t even recognize that the field I was attempting to major in was one I disliked. So, I changed my major. I was a government major, and while there’s nothing wrong with being a government major, I realized that I, myself, hate studying government. I thought about what brought me the most joy, and that was storytelling and discussing society, so I switched to English and sociology, fields I am actually interested in and passionate about. I also took the time to really evaluate where I was spending my time, and as a result, I shifted some of my involvements, all in the effort to prioritize what mattered most to me. A final change I made was making the conscious decision to put time with my friends above time working on extracurriculars (within reason, of course), and for the most part, I have followed through on this commitment.

I have spoken mostly about my own experiences here, especially related to school and church. However, I think the potential for self and communal questioning has a much wider scope than these institutions. Why do we dress the way we do? Why do we speak the way we do? Why do our relationships look the way they do? These are just a few of many questions I think are rarely asked, but that should more often be the subjects of our conversations.

Sometimes, the axiology of our society can be so overpowering that it tells you what you should want in life before you ever get the chance to figure it out for yourself. At least, that’s what happened to me. Having taken the time to introspect, though, I now have a better understanding of what actually makes me feel excited that I am alive and I will be working to spend the rest of my life feeling like that as much as possible.