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An Illuminating Moment

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Night had set as I sat looking at my computer screen. It was late, or rather, I was late, as I trudged through whatever assignment my all-too-apparent powers of procrastination had postponed until the night before the due date. The nature of the actual assignment eludes my memory, perhaps because I started and completed it in one night, or because my finished product was nothing worth remembering. I can guess, however, that if the mood I was in then was anywhere near as reflective and contemplative as it happens to be as I write this, that this particular assignment was, more likely than not, an essay for my first-year humanities class. In that dimly lit space, courtesy of a flickering light in the doorway of my dorm room that was dismal at best, the light from my computer screen was all that was really necessary. It didn’t matter what extra light was there, or that any other lights were on at all. In total darkness, I would have sat, as countless college students do each night, transfixed by a single light in front of me, a light that illuminated words conjured up from the dark depths of my mind as I tried to translate abstract ideas into concrete sentences, experiences into explanations, intuitions into a reasoned argument or synopsis. What else do we try to do in humanities anyway?

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At times, you might notice that when someone is thinking deeply, they direct their gaze toward a point in the distance, and adopt an intense, discerning expression. Out of context, it may seem as if something exciting or interesting is happening in the distance, when in fact there is nothing extraordinary going on at all. That momentary intense focus on a rather ordinary external object channels one’s mental energy further inward, to sort out the complex thought processes taking place. And as I was thinking very heavily about life and ethics and morality and such things, I decided to look out the window to my left.

My thoughts, however, did not turn inward. Through the windows of the apartment building next to mine, several lights illuminated rooms like my own, where others were going about their business—cleaning dishes, reading books, watching television, using the computer. It was strange how in that moment the mundane activities of ordinary people captivated me the way that they did. Isolated in my room, engrossed in my own thoughts, it was all each light in the distance could do to reassure me that another human being was not so far away. 

I wasn’t too fond of the city at first. In no other place can one feel so connected with the stream of life, and yet cut off from everyone that takes part in it. We walk quickly when we don’t need to, avert our gaze from sad figures who ask of our charity, or avoid eye contact with those strange people sitting across from us on the subway. The impersonal hustle and bustle of the city streets is at once liberating and isolating in its chaos. Yet as I sat in my room, essentially peeping in on people at this dark hour, I felt more connected than ever before. Each window illuminated the life of another human being. 

Though these are moments we try to capture in words, spoken or on paper, I realize now how useless words must be when trying to describe the fleeting sensation in your chest that arises when you realize that another human being is just like you. And each light off in the distance illuminates the home of another person, complete with his or her story, motivations, pursuits, emotions, and failures. All made visible to me by a light that was bright enough. Is my light bright enough? Now I have an extra desk lamp, but looking back, I wish my room had had a brighter light at that moment. Aside from alleviating my eyestrain, it would have made it easier to sort out the clutter in my own home as well.

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