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The Gap Year

September, 2017
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The Gap Year



“I am seated in an office, surrounded by heads and bodies,” begins David Foster Wallace in his magnum opus, Infinite Jest. “Just brains, sitting around, trying to decide how to outwit other brains,” thinks Dr. Jeremy Stone of Michael Crichton’s Andromeda Strain, as he witnesses nameless ministers gathered to discuss national security. Both narrators have lost their ability to see. For them human beings, and nature as a whole, have been shattered into its individual parts, melting and remolding like a wild array of kaleidoscopic figures with no real depth or shape.

gap-year-01It was such a world I lived in three years ago, as a high school senior. My first concern was to get into the best college possible to prepare for the best possible future. That there was a financial component to this drive, I do not doubt. But I think too many seniors with ambition plead want as a mask to their true desires. Rather, the largest part of the drive, I think now, was due to fear. This fear, it seems, is the twin of all ambition—that if I did not perform, either financially, academically, or physically then I was nothing, as the chaff that the wind drives away. So out with anything not practical! My entire mindset was focused on results, results, results. What keeps the businessman slaving at his desk, to the neglect of his wife and child, the student at the work desk, ignoring family and friend? Fear, it seems, at not having lived a life that mattered.

Dear reader, it is from this servile fear that taking a gap year, and living it well, strikes. That is the first recommendation. For “is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” There are things that sustain life, and yes, they are important. There are things we do to keep the friendship and goodwill of others, and yes, they are important too. But neither of these things would be worth anything if we did not have something to enjoy, to make life worth living, for each of these things exists but for that. All your life, you will always be a slave to want. The dream of full independence from need is but a myth. After making the first million, the problem will be living to enjoy it. After living to enjoy it – ah, but what will the later children think?

And so the reason men are different from insects, writes C. S. Lewis, is that “they propound mathematical theorems in beleaguered cities, conduct metaphysical arguments in condemned cells, make jokes on scaffolds, discuss the last new poem while advancing to the wall of Quebec, and comb their hair at Thermopylae.” We want beauty and truth, and we want it now, damn the circumstances! Do not wait for a mythic perfect moment that will never come.

gap-yearIn this lies the first danger of taking a gap year. I do not think that working during your gap year is bad. For four months during the summer, I engaged in “total work” to the exclusion of all else to make as much money as possible. During that time, I earned not a bad amount of money and plenty of work experience. But now, looking back, it seems that during those four months, nothing of my utilitarian mindset had been changed. I was still stuck in the world of pure costs and profits; in that case, I may as well not have taken those four months off but put them into school credits to graduate sooner – I would have made more money, faster.

Rather, it was later when I worked with my friend in Kansas that I first experienced the joy of leisure. My good friend Jeremiah, who I met in college, invited me over to his house to stay during the summer. It was the first time I’d ever had the pleasure of working in a family farm. Getting up at 7 am every day, we headed out to weed the garden, repair chicken fences, and saw excess tree branches and other such lovely duties, until roughly around 6 or 7 pm, when we would call it a day. But afterwards, for the rest of the night, me and my friend would stay up on the front porch with a cigar or two to discuss what the gates of horn meant in the Aeneid, or whether Beauty was really ontologically dependent on Goodness. In turn, we would think on these ideas as we worked, which led to even more intense debates during our time of leisure. It was a good time. Work reinforced leisure, and leisure reinforced our work.



For our leisure was truly leisurely. Aristotle, in his Nicomachean Ethics – a textbook to be “pondered in the heart” as Charles Murray puts it – distinguishes between two types of rest, namely, “relaxation,” and “leisure.” In our crowded, noisy world, the former has so come to dominate all rest that most nowadays think that the only kind of rest is relaxation. But this would be to degrade the value of leisure, which the ancients thought was so important that their word for work, neg-otium, was secondary – a negation of the word, “leisure” – otium. Relaxation, they knew of – it was a break from work; it existed for and supported work. But work itself was for something else – and this thing was leisure. 

gap-year-4-copyFor the greatest joy in human life is not simply to live, but to live well. “The unexamined life,” says Socrates, “is not worth living.” For there is a kind of life that is mere vegetation, in the basest sense of the word—but there is another kind of life, as evidenced by the glorious, doomed choice of Achilles – the life of excellence. What is easiest to human beings is a kind of dull relaxation, a fading of the senses, an easing of human powers. But true leisure, the ancients thought, was the exact opposite – it was an activity that summoned the full powers of mind, body and soul – yet, unlike work, was directed towards an end that was sought for itself.

This then, is the second recommendation for doing a gap year, in that if done right, it should be perfectly useless. It is something that cannot be sought for other than itself. “Why did you want to climb Mount Everest,” a reporter asks of a youth in an interview. “Because it is there,” replies George Mallory. It is not because he hoped to get any concrete benefits, he himself says, for “the answer must at once be, ‘it is of no use.’ There is not the slightest prospect of any gain whatsoever…we shall not bring back a single bit of gold or silver, not a gem, nor any coal or iron… If you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won’t see why we go. What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life. We do not live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to live. That is what life means and what life is for.”  

gap-year-7Thomas Little Heath, the famed translator of Euclid’s Elements, spent all his life as a civil servant, and it was in this career that he made his living. Yet, during those times when he was free, he headed out to the Dolomite mountains with mountaineering equipment in one hand and a Greek mathematical textbook in the other. He would spend nights out beside cliffs, filling them up with mathematical diagrams in chalk. No one asked him to do so. He made no money, nor would have such a reward moved him in the slightest. Yet, he was moved by a joy, the joy of human excellence, of pushing oneself to the edge and beyond. This – this human aristeia, or greatness, was what the ancients saw as true leisure.

In this lies the second danger of the gap year, the converse of excessive work. For all humans beings tend towards laziness. Left to themselves, without the extrinsic rewards of work, most humans gravitate towards a sort of stagnation, staying in bed, endlessly playing video games, mindlessly going about their businesses with the least modicum of toil. If a gap year is to be successful, this opposite tendency must be resisted. Originally, in the beginning, I filled the interstitial moments of my gap year (those few days or weeks here or there in which I had nothing scheduled) with an endless series of video games. “Here was true freedom!” I thought, as I spent hours and hours upon titles such as Xcom: Enemy Within – once, even reaching a hundred hours within two weeks. But all of it was empty. I only gamed because I had an existential terror of silence. Whenever I lay my head down to sleep, the silence and realization of where all my time had gone prompted me only to get out and play even more, if only to drown out what I knew I had done. Yet, what else was there?

The first inkling I had that another world of rest existed began when I started horse packing. As an assignment from school, we were required to read the first two chapters of the Aeneid, an ancient Roman epic. Might as well, I thought, get some homework finished as we rode through the desert. At that moment, studying still felt like a chore, work—something that had to be done, but in which there was found little pleasure. But I remember one night after a campfire roast, I went back in my tent in the dark, and began the second book of the Aeneid. And the pitiful figures of the sack of Troy appeared to me, almost smoke-like. Here was the old Priam, mad with grief at the sight of his youngest son slain, contending pitifully against the cruel Neoptolemus, Achilles’ son. There was sad Creusa, the slain wife of Aeneas, a weeping shade begging her husband to take their child – her last remnant of life – and flee. And finally, there was “pious Aeneas” himself, who, taking his son’s hand in his right hand and carrying his father on his left shoulder, walks through the flames of Troy – a spectacle so noble, so godlike, that even the enemy Greeks give way without a fight. It was not an easy book. But it was a great book, and pleasure of wrestling with it all night gave real peace.



It was in the course of wrestling with the Aeneid and other such ancient epics that the enigmatic figure of the sea came to interest me. It is to sea that the Trojans put to flight for safety, and the knowledge of the sea that Teiresias commands Odysseus to bring to “men living who know nothing/ of the sea, and who eat food that is not mixed with salt, who never/ have known ships whose cheeks are painted purple, who never have known well-shaped oars, which act for ships as wings do,” in order to expatiate Poseidon’s wrath and perhaps bring about the salvation of the inland peoples. Perhaps Tolkien was prophetic when he writes within his Silmarillion that after the music of the angels solidified into creation, only within water was there left a little of the original melody of the First Song, and so that the hearts of men are ever drawn West, into the Great Ocean. For over the course of my gap year, it was my time sailing the Caribbean that has ever left the deepest imprint within my heart.

gap-year-1Life on a sailboat at sea was tough work. At all times, some crew had to be left awake to run the boat. We worked in rotating four-hour shifts – either you took 8pm-12am, 12am-4am, or the lucky dog shift, 4am-8am, when you got to see the sun rise. In exchange for the misery however, I saw the most incredible nights, beautiful beyond imagination. The sky was littered with stars, of which the captain would occasionally point out a constellation or two. Meteors were a dime a dozen. Sometimes, we would rudder pass entire swarms of luminous jellyfish the size of human heads that winked on and off in the night. I remember the rocking of the ship against the ocean waves, sometimes so gentle it almost seemed like a child’s cradle, other times so violent we had to tie ourselves to our beds. I cherish all those memories. But above all, I cherished those quieter nights, when the winds were slow and it seemed all of creation was lost in sleep. Then, me and my good friend Orren would sit in the front of the boat as look-outs and we would talk for hours and hours under the starry sky.

Although Orren and I came from almost completely diverging backgrounds, it seemed we were kindred spirits, souls knit out of the same ball of yarn. We would begin with a joke, a small piece of news, a bit of shipboard gossip, but pretty soon we would leave that behind, and we would speak of our experiences of life, our sorrows, trials, triumphs and joys. From there, we would be moved to question what something was: why did we feel this way? What was the essence of love, life, death, and the whole gamut of human wisdom and folly? And sometimes, effortlessly –almost carelessly—but with authority, like an utterance from an oracle – a groan from the heart of being – one of us would say something that had the ring of truth, with words more than words, and we would be shocked into silence, in terror and in awe at that sudden piercing view we had of the quietly beating heart of reality, the unutterable fullness of life. In those moments of shared wonder, I felt my soul expanded, full and satisfied, almost in the same way the body feels after a good meal. It is a moment of profundity impossible to express on paper.

gap-year-2This, I think, is the crowning moment of a gap year. It is for this moment that it seems all human speech gropes blindly, dimly, towards—that singular moment of poetry, like a dethroned king fruitlessly recalling his lost splendor and glory, trying on rags in place of robes. I remember the first time it happened, I thought to myself, “yes, this was what I was looking for, all the times when me and my friends were in bars and we were uttering things and getting frustrated because what we were saying was not what we were meaning to say, and yet we were speaking because we wanted to say something, wanted to say it so badly that if we did not say it we would explode and yet all that came out was noise, noise, empty and meaningless noise and so we would glare at each other in an exasperated silence, almost trying to say with our glares, did you get what I mean?”

And yet, as with all things of this earth, the moment passes and the end comes all too soon. The dawn sun rises, the dog shift ends, and another day of hard sailing and marine studies begins. But even after the sails have been furled and the last stain of salt washed from our clothes and once more we walk on the familiar, dry earth, with the memory of the sea but a waking dream, perhaps a little of the melody of the First Song will echo yet in our hearts. “We shall not cease from our exploration,” writes T. S. Eliot in his Four Quartets, “And the end of all our exploring /Will be to arrive where we started /and know the place for the first time.” On that day then, perhaps, we will once again see not brains and bodies, but whole men.



By Jason Huang,

Shanghai American School Alumni, St. John’s University Undergraduate


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