Strapping on virtual reality headgear allows a person to enter worlds ranging from aquatic utopias to hideous warzones. Students equipped with the mightiest of weapons, our keyboard-typing fingertips, may not find a game that matches that part of our minds. On the other hand, war-torn roadsides littered with the smouldering hulks of tanks and jeeps are not so far removed from the reality of how many people feel after they sign up for distance education and then proceed to crash and burn academically.
On every life mission there’s our goal and the reality of getting there, but if we feel entitled to arrive safely and successfully, we might be weakening our chances. Consider Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of “the eternal return of the same”, which states that to be at peace in our life we must accept what happened and even wish that it’d happen all over again. To Nietzche, who held his status as a jilted lover close to his philosophic heart, we can only achieve peace about life’s travails when we can accept and even wish that the twists and turns would repeat themselves the same way for eternity. Now, if you’re like me and figure that forever really does sound like an eternity, you might look askance at such a notion. Our past mistakes repeated forever-ever, really?
Within Nietzsche’s law of eternal return, however, is a kernel of truth relevant to our academic journey: we must not assume that we are in any way predestined for success because, as my Daddy used to say, if we get too cocky life will run us right over. Besides being self-defeating, this tendency to believe that life is meant to turn out peachy can be insufferable to others. Arrogance about destiny can also be toxic to our self in terms of owning up to our shortcomings. Jacques Derrida, recounting Sigmund Freud, describes a “neurosis of destiny, individuals, for example, whose friendships all end in betrayal by their friend or individuals or people who spend their whole lives putting on a pedestal people they will soon knock down off of that pedestal and deprive all authority” (183). Beware those ideas or people who to our egos seem too rewarding, too propitious, in other words. After flattery comes the fall, and if we deceive ourselves about our merit or intestinal fortitude or our decisiveness, we may be leading ourselves down a garden path. School as an adult is a hard row to hoe and one that takes an awful lot of hard work, work different than following directions for pay or of accomplishing ordinary adulting tasks.
A sense of destiny can function here to obscure reality. Reality is, we are not going to meet our goals nor keep a pristine sense of character if we set ludicrously lofty expectations for ourselves. Such a sense of meant to be can overshadow our feel for reality, often until it’s too late. Seniors’ villages have many occupants who’ll tell you not about how their destiny was fulfilled but instead about things that could have been—only they weren’t. Gazing over life’s horizon it’s worth remembering that we have a lifetime to assess the damages caused in an instant, or in a few short weeks, of foolhardy idealism. Like a wall blown out of an airplane to reveal a starry night so close and yet so far away, the reality of student life can meet a harrowing fate if chinks appear in our armour of self-delusion.
Telling ourselves that we’re motivated is one thing, but actually putting in the hours is quite another. While we might imagine our studious selves buckling down day after day, often after a full day’s work in the so-called real world, the reality of time and motivation is something else entirely. Facing mounting deadline failure and exam anxiety as that contract date looms ever closer, we might even find ourselves turning on that cherished academic discipline that we’d so long adored from afar. Like meeting a hero or a crush and realizing that s/he conveys an air of diffidence, snarkiness, or disinterest, the idealistic linking of one’s destiny with an Other says much about the nature of being human. Nietzsche, himself a snake-bitten lover, said of the universe that “the whole character of the world is in eternity chaos” and “the whole music box repeats its tune eternally, a tune that can never be called a melody – and ultimately even the phrase ‘unsuccessful attempt’ is too anthropomorphic and reproachful”. (182). Perhaps it’s too unforgiving to say that we failed or lacked diligence, perhaps to truly grow we have to truly accept that at the time that’s just the way things were. Chasing the tail of explanations, like denials or accusations, in the end falls short of coming to terms with the facts at hand.
In back of seeking to understand what went wrong when things don’t go our way is a sense that, in a proper world, things would happen to our benefit. If only we’d studied harder or if only we’d remembered that one key quote to put into our exam essay. A strong sense of self does hinge on a certain confidence that things ought to work out in our favour because within us we have the ability to succeed. After all, no one starts a project with the phrase “well this is doomed to failure.” Inspiration is said to perform miracles of fortitude, the likes of which yield whole novels written over a weekend or entire final essays accomplished after one Red Bull and an evening of exertion. “Whatever is incorporated makes the body, and our embodiment, steadfast and secure…it is the juice that feeds our energies” wrote Heidegger (187). That facts differ, however, in that while all we take into our minds is grist for the mill we can’t, per se, get water from a stone. Or at least not very often. Sigmund Freud in his way addressed this neurosis of destiny, whereby we human specimens affix an awful lot of importance to an Other only to feel lost and disjointed in the end.
Realizing that our chosen intellectual interest may not of itself spur us to greater heights of mind is a bit like a Neil Young lyric: “it doesn’t mean that much to me, to mean that much to you.” We can’t expect to, Matrix-like, swallow a certain pill that will magically transform us into a scholar worthy of mention within the ivory tower of academia. Quite the opposite, in fact. The world and our interactions, especially our mental intersections with ideas and the hard work of actually studying and incorporating facts and theory, is only viewable as a landscape of destiny if we ignore just how much of a skill our attention span is. There’s a reason why millions of people played forms of a Guitar Hero games and only a tiny fraction even form a band, let alone become rock stars.
It’s a tough slog, inspiration, and it begins with abandoning our pretense to an excess of talent or destiny. “Once you know that there are no purposes, you also know that there is no accident” wrote Nietzsche (182). To succeed is to truly put our paltry skills in perspective and remember that, just as we only learned to read as youngsters through a lot of practice and humility when we mispronounced words, the only path to victory is one that we walk with the temerity of a person who can never be certain that s/he will ever really get there.
And then there’s looking back, those pauses in life where destiny or failure can seem inevitable. The slippery slope slides both ways, after all, and as Robert Frost in his poem admitted, the way we account for our choices, such as claiming to take the path less trodden, makes all the difference. Lou Reed, in a song about a tragic elderly lady who laments “why she‘s given half her life, to people she hates now” illuminates the key component of retroactive destiny. In the end, we have a choice about how to account for our successes and our failures. Either we can blame others or ourselves, or we can realize that at the time we thought we were doing the best we could with what we have. Even if you fail an assignment or a course, there is always tomorrow. And even if your discipline falls short of your expectations or a tarnish appears on that idea or person that you cherish, it’s always up to you how you process the input. Mind may not literally predominate over matter, but it sure matters how we put our lives and our studies in perspective. After all, a person can wander cemeteries for a lifetime and not read an epitaph bearing the words “s/he didn’t really try.”