In Which the 18-Year Old John Scalzi Tackles “The Great Questions”
Posted on January 19, 2016 Posted by John Scalzi 39 Comments
My high school alumni office sent me an interesting email — the last essay assignment I wrote for one of my classes in my senior year of high school, in which I was asked, essentially, to write about what it meant to be human. It was for my AP Modern European History class, and the teacher was Roy Bergeson. His plan at the time was to collect the essays from his students and then send them to us when we graduated from college. What actually happened was that the essays were packed away for years and Mr. Bergeson only found them this year, and sent them to the school to forward on. So technically, he did send them to us when we graduated, just 25 years later than expected.
I read the essay when it arrived, and found it an interesting glimpse at the past me. I only vaguely remember writing this essay, but there is no doubt in my mind it is me who wrote it — it has all the hallmarks of who I was at that stage of my life. I’m posting both it and the original assignment (forwarded by Mr. Bergeson) here both for your edification — as a glimpse into the mind of teenage John Scalzi — and for my own archival purposes.
I’ll note I have edited the piece to make it more readable (I chopped up run-on sentences and added paragraphs), but have otherwise not edited for content. What you’re reading is pure teenage Scalzi, for better or worse. I’ll add my own thoughts about it as the first post in the comment thread.
With that said, first, the actual assignment, from Mr. Bergeson:
The Last Hurrah
We have spent a good deal of time in this course reading and discussing different responses to three fundamental questions. While those questions have not all been framed in the same way, the questions have essentially been:
What is the nature of a human being?
What is the nature of the world?
How should a human being interact with that world?
The medieval scholastics were quite confident in their answers. A person’s place in the City of Man and the City of God were clearly defined. The only real issue was obedience to authority. Humanism, new methods of attaining knowledge, scientific discovery, world-wide exploration, doubt, and cataclysmic events have changed that secure, holistic view of St Thomas Aquinas.
You are about to graduate from high school (hopefully!). This time marks one of the most significant “passages“ in your life. On such an occasion it is good to stop, think, recollect, and write down where you are. Therefore, in accordance with a longstanding APMEH tradition, I would like you to consider and then answer those three fundamental questions posed above. I will send you copies of what you write in four years when you graduate from college. I hope that this will be a significant exercise for you, and that this marking of the end of high school will be interesting to you in the many years ahead.
And here is what I wrote:
The human being is perhaps the most unfortunate animal on the earth. Possessed of a brain that has too many connections, the human being is not merely self-aware – that is, concerned only with what is near to him and happens to be occupying his time – but he is also aware in a wider sense: aware of more than what is in front of his face. The human being is aware of his past, aware of his future, aware of hopes, dreams, fears, fantasies, and not just aware of them in a sense of a momentary awareness, such as an animal has when it hopes for a piece of meat from its master or when it is afraid of the thunder.
For a human, the hopes are always there, embedded into the bedrock of the consciousness, buried under other, more pressing considerations, but always there, to be taken out and cherished in the time a person has to himself. This awareness has its foundations in the ability of the human mind to grasp long-range occurrences, and its ability for complex, intuitive thought. These two factors have a synergistic affect upon each other, creating within the human mind a vast arena for information and data, internal and external, to combine and melt and become thought with far more facility and ease than can be found anywhere else in the animal kingdom.
The end result of this is that the human being tends to think too much. And not merely think too much: we talk too much, know too much, fight too much, dream too much, hate too much, and love too much. The human being has always enjoyed living on the extremes; we do not tell our children bedtime stories about certified public accountants. And humans crave the intense experiences: having a good laugh, falling deeply in love, shaking in a religious ecstasy all mean more to us for the instant they exist than do all the long hours of just living.
These two forces, thinking too much and craving the intense experience, have combined several times in the course of our human history, and when they collide, the great philosophical questions have arisen: who are we? What is our place? Is there a higher power, and if so, why did He create us? Where are we going, and how do we get there? Who am I? What comes afterwards?
These are the Great Questions, those questions by which we define ourselves and our existence.
Confronting the Great Questions separates the human race into two broad categories: Those who choose to deal with the questions, and those who choose to avoid them. The number of people in the latter group far exceeds the number in the former and while this is unfortunate, it is not too surprising; to confront these sorts of question and to deal with them fairly calls upon a great amount of (if you will) spiritual strength, of which most people, it seems from observation, either don’t have to begin with, or if they do have it, it isn’t used often enough to strengthen it to what it needs to be to deal with these questions.
These people either fall back on someone else’s answers to the questions, thus depriving themselves of the real knowledge of experience, or dismiss these Great Questions as unimportant to their life. Both of these methods leave these people mentally impotent and spiritually vacant, and these people will pass through this world largely unnoticed and after they have gone, will soon be forgotten.
This does not mean this group of people are all bad; there are many fine and good people, who are respectable and deserve to be respected and loved. But they are incomplete; a person who does not grapple with the Great Questions seriously cannot know himself intimately, and while he may feel great rushes of emotion or some sense of spiritual longing, these will flow through the person undefined, for lack of anything to define against, and these surges of true nobility, of humanity, will leave the person too soon, for lack of anything to anchor onto.
This essential, what makes a person a human being, is denied to those who deny the Great Questions, leaving only base and unsatisfying imitations of emotion and spirit, and these will leave the person possessing them, in the end, alone, scared, their lives wasted, their thoughts misunderstood, and their dreams shattered. The cruelest thing of denying these Questions is that in the end, they leave you a stranger to yourself, and because of that, to all others. A man who does not know himself cannot know others, cannot love others… and cannot leave in this world anything of note; a man, in denying these questions, he has already condemned his life to failure.
It is from that group of human beings who struggle with the Great Questions that all of what is humanity is comes from. This group encompasses the high and lows of history and human experience; Hitler belongs in this group just as surely as does Jesus, Stalin as much as Gandhi. These members of the human race did not back away from the Questions: they fought with them and tried to answer them to their own personal satisfaction; in doing so they unlocked the door to themselves became what they were down their soul; in struggling with these questions, they became all that was human in them. They quite literally ate from the tree of knowledge and were confronted with themselves, in all its dizzying heights and terrifying lows.
The members of this group are truly human; they have taken the time to know themselves. They did not all answer the Questions, to be sure; and of those who did answer the questions, some of the answers were twisted and garbled. But the fact remains that they possessed the strength to attempt an answer; and if one does not try, one cannot succeed.
I have tried, in my life, not to shy away from these Great Questions. I cannot say that I have succeed in answering all the questions; I don’t even know if I know what all the questions are. But I do know that I would rather face these questions and attempt to know myself than to go through my life with blinders on. It is not a question of what one should do and what one should not do; if one does not want to know themselves, that is their business. I find the whole idea of people having a purpose for being born distasteful; one should decide for oneself what one’s duties are.
But I find over the course of time that those people I admire and respect (and love) above all others have taken some time to know themselves; I find that those who are remembered in our histories are those who take time to know themselves; I find that all the great achievements of the human race were accomplished by those who knew themselves; therefore I conclude that to be fully human, and to achieve some sort of satisfaction in my life, I must attempt the Great Questions for myself and learn who I am.
I want to be able to love. I want to be remembered after I am dead as a man who contributed something to the world I lived in. I want to be worth remembering. And it seems the way to do this is to know myself first and foremost. I don’t believe in purposes; but if I did, I would believe that God gave man the brain he did in order to allow man to, if he wished, know himself, and through that, come closer to God. The purpose of man would be to know himself.
I want to know myself, the good as well as the bad in me. I know no real purpose in this; materialistically speaking, there is not outright reward. But there is a reward that comes from the awareness knowing oneself gives; I can feel it now, however dimly, and it both scares me and makes me feel joyful. I believe it makes me feel human. I believe it makes me alive.
And now my own thoughts on the essay I wrote when I was 18:
Uh, well, I certainly thought I knew a lot about the human condition back then, didn’t I?
Nearly three decades on, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t divide up humanity the way I did in the essay, nor would I want to suggest that people who don’t actively tackle The Great Questions ultimately lead wasted lives, full of fear and futility. That’s silly and overdramatic to say — and arrogant, which 18-year-old me could be because he literally did not know any better, but which 46-year old me knows elsewise, at least in this particular case.
I also think actively grouping Hitler, Stalin, Jesus and Gandhi together was not exactly my finest hour, there. I suspect 18-year-old me really thought he was making a cogent and useful point; 46-year-old me a) strongly doubts the thesis 18-year-old me is fronting in that particular paragraph, b) even if he didn’t, would probably find a less regrettable way of making the same point.
In short, this is the essay of someone who believes he knows more about the human condition than he does. The good news is, he eventually figures out more of it. It takes a few more years after this, however, and also, it’s a continuing process.
With that said, the basic ideas of the last two paragraphs of the essay still resonate with me. I still wish to be a useful human being, in many senses of the word “useful,” and as the word applies to several different audiences. I still think knowing one’s self — or at least continuing to interrogate one’s thoughts and feelings to better understand them — is key to being able to be useful. And independent of anything else, that understanding of one’s self is its own reward.
What was your grade on the assignment and the final grade in the class?
That’s a heck of a lot of self-awareness for an 18-year-old. I wish someone had asked me those questions when I was graduating from high school!
I can’t remember my grade in the class but I got a “5” on my Modern European History AP exam, so I had that going for me, which is nice.
Interesting. You seemed to dwell quite a bit on “The Question,” but it’s a thoughtful piece I could not have written myself at that age, and you will certainly achieve your goal of becoming someone who has contributed to the world and will be remembered for it long after your death. Congratulations on that but please, take your time in fullfilling it!
One thing – and you can be pardoned for it as you were a high school senior at the time – the use of “if you will” drives me crazy, mostly when it’s verbalized to excuse a (usually inappropriate) metaphor. I worked with a guy who could say those three words multiple times in a single sentence. Arrrggghhh!
Also, I’ve found that people who say “if you will” a lot also use what I’ve always considered to be a non-word, or at least, a contradictory word: “irregardless.” Think about it, “responsible” is the opposite of “irresponsible,” so “irregardless” is the opposite of “regardless” even though it’s used to mean just that. Arrrggghhh!!!
John, thanks for sharing this. I’m curious about 2 topics:
1. Has Athena read your essay and comment?
2. Have you had a chance to talk to Mr. Bergeron, especially since you moved to Ohio?
BTW, best New Year’s Wishes for you and yours…..look forward to seeing you at Westercon!
I have to agree with Sharon. Pretty deep for an 18 y’/o. I struggled with these questions, esp. the first two, at that age,as I guess we all did, but I don’t recall my answers being anywhere near as clearly thought out as yours.
I think the actual response is less important than the fact that you were blessed with a teacher who trained you and pushed you to think about those things at a young age and (apparently) in a safe space.
As a college teacher, I see so many students who haven’t been given that opportunity. I try to give it to them, but many of them are already afraid to grapple with the questions. They’ve been shut down so many times already that it doesn’t feel safe.
Knowing that you were grappling with these questions at a young age explains a lot about why I like to read your work and sometimes reply. Even though we don’t always agree, we are both working on the questions and that’s important.
What a great high school teacher!
Fascinating to read this… I feel like I wrote many similar essays at that age. *grins* It’s especially interesting to read as a demonstration of your personal evolution as a writer; the seeds of your style were definitely present, even then. Thank you for sharing this with us!
Dear Mr. Scalzi, I haven’t read your blog, but I just finished The Last Colony. It kept me spellbound since I opened the book yesterday. I have to say that I am more like Jane in that I think linearly, unlike her husband who thinks in intricate loops. But, it does my heart good to see a man who is subtle, but still warm and loving to his wife and daughter. Having lost my husband to a stroke a little over a year ago, it is so good to know that there are other men out there like that. Thank you. Sincerely, Rochelle
I’m glad you said “overdramatic” so I don’t have to. Earnest but gauche. (Which is kinda a capsule description of being 18.) (Who knew? There are actual benefits to getting older.)
I agree that you dived pretty deep in the “what is a human being” part and its world of thought. But I miss the part where you answer the second two questions. interaction with the world and other human beings seemed to be far less important than his own thoughts and feelings to teenage You.
What Miranda said — first thing I thought, too (well, besides: “aww, teenager!”). As a scientist who studies non-human organisms, I was left thinking that 18yo Scalzi seemed awfully anthropocentric in his vision of the world. (Apparently all animals of his acquaintance are domesticated vertebrates…).
Do you think it didn’t occur to 18yo Scalzi that aspects of “the nature of the world” worth talking about could encompass anything other than humans-and-what-they-think(-about-themselves), or did you just not get around to question 2?
Otherwise, your essay made me smile as I recognized so many of the things that I both love and grind my teeth at about my favorite 18 year olds (my past self included!). Idealism; self-righteousness; curiosity about others and the world; self-absorption; enthusiasm!! (untempered by wisdom or experience); eagerness to Sort It All Out; tendency to extrapolate from a very small dataset and fall for pretty arguments that don’t add up; a flair for the dramatic; the “more money than sense” phase of writing skill acquisition — ah, callow youth! In the best possible way :-)
Well, that resonated with me, as a young twenty-something…
Better than anything I was writing at that stage! Fair to say you’ve managed to achieve the goal set in the last few paragraphs as well.
Although minus points for doing the whole ‘there are only two kinds of people’ shtick
As the father of a tenager, I agree with a previous poster that it would be fun to have Athena’s take on the essay.
Methinks Athena may find herself with an unexpected homework assignment…
When the question “What does it mean to be human?” was first posed, my thought was to go off in a completely different direction, that we cannot define what it means to be human without first looking at what it is to be non-human. Then I had to ask myself would the 18-year-old me have looked outside myself to answer that question? Or would childhood’s centrism have held me to a similar exposition?
I had to laugh reading it. I can look back at essays I wrote at that age and see the same highfalutin language. “This is what they expect from me, so I’d better deliver” rather than writing in one’s own voice. It differs a lot from the fictional stories I wrote at the same time. Yet, in both, there is still that narrow point of view that is very ‘me’ centric. The melodramatic presentation that the man-child I was thought was the proper way to present my thoughts.
Very fun and educational!
What self awareness for teenager! Enjoyed reading this, thank you for sharing.
“The human being is perhaps the most unfortunate animal on the earth. Possessed of a brain that has too many connections, the human being is not merely self-aware – that is, concerned only with what is near to him and happens to be occupying his time – but he is also aware in a wider sense: aware of more than what is in front of his face.”
Dude, not to get all in your face, but the opening of this essay is the foundation of most of your fiction since. Consciousness and self-awareness — let’s shift at 75-year-old’s consciousness into a young body; let’s put a paralyzed person’s consciousness into a robot; let’s put the consciousness of an alien into a human body; what’s the “sentience/consciousness” of a bunch of teddy-bear-like creatures on an alien planet…
“The human being has always enjoyed living on the extremes; we do not tell our children bedtime stories about certified public accountants.”
I think I would recognize this as a Scalzi line anywhere.
Reading that, it sounds so much what I suspect my writing on similar subjects was like at the time if I could find it. I actually undertook a similar project describing “my life philosophy” completely voluntarily while I was taking a class called “Literature of Decision” that was basically a modernist philosophy class. I distinctly remember sitting at my parents’ kitchen table, writing it out in long-hand (which is particularly weird considering I usually used the computer). I’d love to be able to find it now.
I don’t know, I’m impressed with where you were at that time in your life. You were obviously concerned with those deep questions we all know but ponder to varying degrees. Sure, you were only 18 years old, but how many people of that age would or could articulate such a thing as you did? It is a very deep set of questions with many difficult pathways, but which ultimately leads to just the thing your younger self points to. The Hitler/Gandhi connection is debatable(as well as controversial), but I can see where your younger mind was going and there is a truth to it in the murk of words we have and use.
An interesting teacher as well, I think. We need more like that for our children.
John – you and I are about the same age. As I read the essay, I suspect I winced roughly as often as you did, recognizing the brazen self-assuredness of “someone who believes he knows more about the human condition than he does.”
But that’s not what bothers me. This is what bothers me: the essay was 46-18 = 28 years ago. When we’re 46+28 = 74 years old, I suspect we’ll both look back on the things we wrote today and have a fairly similar reaction. And there’s likely nothing we can do right now to avoid it.
This seems pretty good for a high school student, although I am amazed at how much shorter your sentences have gotten! I still write compound-complex monstrosities like that, unfortunately, which I blame on spending the intervening decades since high school writing technical papers rather than things like columns and novels; such is my excuse, anyway.
A teenage boy thinking beyond the self! There’s a concept. At that stage in life it would seem a blessing to find a place within that was comfortable enough to look out from. Painful times those were to be sure.
Self-consciously profound as only an intelligent young adult can be. :-) Great assignment from that teacher, it must be fun to teach students who would produce essays like this … but it also makes me sad that most teachers of “average” students might never think of assigning something like this (or might be discouraged from doing so by administrative dicta).
And, of course, I continue to grapple with these questions even now (age 66). I’m not sure I’m any closer to an answer now than I was at 18, but at least I can say I’ve learned a thing or two in the effort.
I’m reminded of the last line of an old Styx song: “We made the grade and Still we wonder, Who the hell we are”.
It’s interesting how the essay jumps from arguing that people think too much, to complaining that most people think too little (at least about the big stuff).
It does remind me of stuff I wrote around that age, though I’d probably have been more detached and cosmic, paraphrasing a bunch of ideas I got from Carl Sagan or Isaac Asimov or Douglas Hofstadter.
It’s always interesting to be able to peer into the mind of the child that we were with the (hopefully) more complete understanding of the world that we enjoy as adults. Somewhere on my Facebook timeline earlier today, I post came up saying: “What four words would you tell your 17 year old self?” My answer was simple. Quit being an asshole.
Very cool to see a little of the author we know in that short essay. And even better to know that you turned out a pretty decent human being. It gives me hope for my teenagers. :)
I probably would have “answered” the first two questions at length with a salad of all I knew about human beings and the natural world from physics, chemistry and biology, and the third very quickly with a “do no harm”. Experience taught me early on that, when possible, moving the topic to one I knew better than the teacher grading my test was always a smart move.
Also, am I the only one mildly bothered by man/he for person/they? It’s not your fault of course, but a sign of the times – in many old academic books the reader is consistently referred to as he – but I was definitely overjoyed when singular “they” was made word of the year.
The 18-year-old you had his lens, or course, but it’s a pretty thoughtful piece for someone so young. It has echoes of the Spider Robinson quote, “This is what it is to be human: to perpetually ask the unanswerable questions, in the hope that the asking of them will somehow hasten the day when they will be answered.”
Darned good read.
To be sure, incomplete and a bit naive in parts (18 -duh!) but with much more perception than most people that age. Certainly far more than I had.
Thanks for sharing. I can see you in it as others have pointed out. I think your older analyst of yourself is pretty good. Sounds like a great teacher.
The above is not giving me the warm fuzzies
@bf: The neuter “he” struck me too. In those days they insisted on it in many English classes. Maybe some still do, under the influence of Strunk and White.
“When I was young and knew everything-”
–The Verve Pipe, “Freshmen”
I can truly say that I think I was similarly overconfident and introspective about the essence of humanness when I was your age at that time. (I’m 28 now, FWIW)
I was not, however, so impossibly eloquent. Not that that comes as any surprise. Thank you for sharing, John. This is nothing short of amazing.
As that old Dylan line had it (which he, ironically, wrote in his twenties)
‘Oh but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now’
@bf I noticed the use of man/he throughout the essay also. I finally had to tell myself “eighteen” and “twenty years ago” and let go of it as much as possible.
I guess the remarkable thing is that that kind of language is noticeable now. We don’t realize how much things have changed until we look back.
That was thoughtful and you seem a little harsh on your younger self. True, you didn’t know everything about the human condition and the great questions, none of us do, but you yourself admitted your ignorance to begin with. There may be no answers, or the answers may change with time and circumstance. It seems to me that the real goal is not to answer the questions, but simply ponder them and see where they lead. Eventually we end up asking better questions, leading us into deeper answers and yet deeper questions, like a blind person using a cane to find their way. That’s what philosophers do. There is no destination, only the journey.
Something that stood out for me was the fact that you started by claiming that we are the most unfortunate animals on Earth, but by the end I had the impression that we are not really that unfortunate, depending on how we look at it. It may be challenging to be self-aware, but just like those who ask the great questions and often live rewarding lives, the challenge that this awareness brings is itself meaningful and rewarding.