In Which the 18-Year Old John Scalzi Tackles “The Great Questions”
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.