Out of the Shells

David YangFebruary 20, 2024Finding MeaningInterfaith Connections

When I was in eighth grade, I was caught for clandestinely playing video games before an exam.

My dad sat me down for a serious conversation. He said that we are escaping from layers and layers of shells that are slowly closing. Doing the right things at the right time will get you freedom beyond the shell you are in, and you will be in a much more beautiful space that you cannot imagine now. But when the shell over your head closes, perhaps because your values became solid, or because you lost a chance that will never come back, you will have to stay where you are for your whole life or spend even more effort to dig out. Now I understand more about this beautiful and merciless saying. For me, finding meaning in my life is the process of getting out of the layers and layers of shells.

The first shell of mine was my mindset of depending on the attention of others to prove my value. I was a very naughty boy when I was young. I loved tricks like drumming on the door to make some noise, because the teacher would come and stop me, and everyone’s attention made me feel important. Only then did I feel satisfied, like I had done some honorable deed. Drawing others’ attention like this was my purpose in life at the time, until one day the girl sitting in front of me said: “Get away from me David, you are so annoying!” and I realized I was already disliked, which showed I had mentally drifted apart from others. That depressed me for days.

So I turned away from depending on others and put my effort into books. You may say I became a pedant, however in my view it was courageous to be self-motivated and not care about others’ opinions. I read books to satisfy my curiosity about the unknown, and I found not only knowledge but also freedom. I read a lot and became the best writer in my class. But apart from exporting my opinion, what I loved most was inquiring; the more I knew, the more I realized how much more is left unknown. Exploring unknowns became my new purpose in life. Until the end of primary school, I voraciously read hundreds of books, including The Three Body Problem and The Great Qin Empire with over five million Chinese characters.

But everything changed when I went to middle school. The freedom I cherished was chained by the traditional Chinese education system. This system was also like a shell, much more clearly felt as something external blocking my sky. As my middle school life proceeded, I became more tailored for exams, and felt less unique, curious, and creative. From the beginning of grade seven, we had rankings for every student in the year. The cold numbers always reminded me to compete brutally for my future, and my original reason for learning was distorted. Knowledge was listed and memorized but not explored, and there was not much space left for personal understanding to be shared, only techniques and tricky problems. Learning became boring as the environment shaped me. I abandoned my hobby of reading books and drowned myself in the oceans of designed practice questions. I knew so clearly that if I wasn’t one of the top 15 students in our school, I would have no chance to enter the best high school in our district and no chance at my ideal college, which meant failure. I thought like this, knowing nothing about what I really wanted. Driven by fear and the primal will of subjugation, I spent three years setting my meaning of life as defeating others and becoming the strongest. At last I became the best at my school and the top 0.3% in our district, stepping on others’ failures to become the top for no reason.

However my identity as a unique person was almost eradicated: I lost my interest in everything. When I finally had some leisure time after the last exam, I felt so numb and bored. I tried to find books that interested me but failed, and was instead thinking about which one was helpful for a certain exam. Suddenly the happiness of being at the top dissipated. There was no sorrow or pain but only the simple feeling of loss. I sat at my piano that whole afternoon, finding the saddest combination of notes. I knew I had to retrieve what I lost.

Two roads were in front of me. I could go to the best high school in my district and proceed studying in the Chinese system, or I could study in a top but not best high school aiming for studying abroad. I hesitated. Studying abroad would give me the chance to be true to myself, while all my advantages gained in the three years would be abandoned, as would my past friends. To keep my rule on the rotting throne or to start all over, that was the question. My hesitation to abandon my past and fear of the unknown loomed over me like another shell.

What is the meaning of staying or leaving? I couldn’t help but wonder. And the question again turned to “what is the meaning of my life?” In the scale of the universe, everyone in this world is like useless sand. Our actions and our passions will eventually dissipate thoroughly in the dark and empty nihility. Glory and hate turn to ashes; love and regrets are forgotten. As a result, the only one who can truly care and experience all of these things is ourselves.

I’m the God in my world, and my decision needed no reason except I loved it. That’s what I realized. Looking at the two roads I might follow, I could predict what I would become if I stayed, and I knew nothing about what I would become if I left. Too boring to stay; too undefined and dangerous to leave. So I left for the unknown and for danger. I needed something to imagine and to dream about, even if it would burn me down. After everything, I’m only sorry for leaving my friends behind, but that is what had to be done.

Saying goodbye to the past three years, I began to construct my future. The world is so big, not limited to the part I could see from our classroom. I was like a prisoner finally freed. Standing in the light, I adjusted my eyes to embrace what I may have dreamed of in thousands of dark nights. In the first year of high school I did many things aside from academics. I began to explore my interests again. From detective stories to dramas to psychology and neuroscience, I found and experienced so much more than I ever had before. I met many people, who were all excellent and not only excellent but unique. And I peeked out of the shell I had always been in: I turned my gaze to the world. There is so much happening, so many uncertainties, and so many opportunities. I developed from a naughty boy depending on others’ attention into a young man able to realize the fabulousness of the world, and I grew through shells and became my unique self. I believe I’m the treasure of the world, and I can’t wait to appreciate and participate in the masterpiece built by all the unique individuals like me. Now, my purpose in life is to explore and to change the world.

Along the journey, out of the shells of my life, I smiled and I cried; I was true to myself and I lied. I found meaning in my life by getting out of layers and layers of shells, and I will never stop until the last day of my arduous, infinite, and beautiful life.

From Beijing, China, David Yang is an ordinary but not-so-ordinary student who is fond of neuroscience, psychology, and literature. David is not completely academic, and loves coming up with heart-moving themes, mixing them in some of his bizarre ideas and creating a crazy story which belongs to him and the ones who understand.