Entropy, Empathy, Engineering, and English*

*alternately titled, “Why I’m an English Engineer”

When I tell people I’m an English major, the first question out of their mouth is more often than not, “So, you want to be a teacher?” I don’t know how to tell them that, no, I don’t want to be a teacher; I want to be a writer, an Engineer of words if you will. That was my plan originally, anyway. I went through all of High School planning on being an Engineer: I loaded up on Science, Math, and Tech classes. I took Physics, Calculus, Electricity and Electronics, trying to achieve a strong base of knowledge for college. It wasn’t until I applied, and was accepted into, the 3-2 engineering program that I realized I did not want to be an Engineer. It seemed Engineering and I would not play well together as we got closer: we’d be like the couple who get married after knowing each other for six months; who, as they find out more about each other, decide they are no longer compatible; and who get a divorce shortly after being married, but still remain friends.

Divorces are costly (so I’m told); college is costly, too. I didn’t want to graduate college in debt, with a degree I don’t like even though jobs are available. Now I’m graduating college in debt, with a degree I love even though fewer jobs are waiting (or so those who don’t know better tell me).

And that’s ok. Science and I may have broken up, but we’re still friends. In fact, in a lot of my writing, I use scientific terms and concepts to help explain what I’m trying to say. One of my favorite ideas to use is entropy.

Three-quarters of the way through my Senior Year of High School, when I told my parents I no longer wanted to be an Engineer, they were surprised. In their minds, I had spent my whole life preparing to be one: I was constantly taking things apart and putting them back together—pens, cameras, computers, pens, pens, pens, anything I could get my hands on; I was always coming up with ideas on ways to improve products consumers buy, especially washers and dryers; for my 6th grade science fair project, I built a radio out of a Quaker Oatmeal can and some wires. My parents saw an Engineer; I did not.

Some people have famous last words:

John Adams, when dying, muttered: “Thomas Jefferson…still survives.” Jefferson had died a few hours earlier.

Louisa May Alcott said, “Is it not meningitis?” …. It wasn’t.

Jane Austen, when asked by her sister if she wanted anything, replied: “I want nothing but death.”

Marie Antoinette, after stepping on the foot of her executioner, muttered: “Pardonnez-moi, monsieur. Je ne l’ai pas fait exprès. “(Pardon me, Sir. I did not do it on purpose.)

I don’t know what my last words will be, but I know what my (rumored) first words were. My parents tell me I looked underneath my car seat while playing on the floor, and they swear they heard me say, “How’s it work?” I’ve spent all 20 years of my life answering that question. All of the jobs I’ve wanted to have for as long as I can remember have had something to do with answering that question. Engineers take things apart, figure out the processes of the inner mechanics, and put them back together. Before an engineer, I wanted to be a doctor. Doctors do the same thing, except they use the human body. And now I want to be a writer, an editor, a publisher. It’s taken me a while to find the connection to the Great Question of my life: “How’s it work?” Hint: It has to do with stories.

I wrote my first story when I was in 1st grade. It was a short horror story that got passed around to all the teachers in my elementary school. They all told me I would be a famous writer someday. I didn’t believe them; I still don’t. That first story, which gave me the confidence to write, has been misplaced, and is sitting, waiting to be rediscovered, somewhere among all the notebooks and loose papers in my room. I started my first novel when I was 8. It was going to be the diary of an 8 year old orphan girl who lost her parents to the influenza epidemic. I never finished, nor did I get past the 4th diary entry. Since then, I’ve written numerous poems, journal entries, blog posts, sentences and paragraphs I hope one day to use somewhere. I guess we’ll have to see where life takes me.

What I’m getting at, I think, is how does my life question of “How’s it work?” connect to stories? I write to figure things out, to deal with my struggles in a healthy way. As someone who has been living with depression for as long as I can remember, every day is a battle. I’ve never been very good at communicating my feelings out loud, but on paper, it all seems to click; my life makes sense: the chaos in my mind becomes ordered. At its base, entropy is a theory of chaos and disorder. The only way to produce order out of chaos is by increasing entropy: order becomes chaos by expanding and producing energy. My chaotic mind becomes ordered when I put in the effort and energy to sort it all out.

Our minds are microcosms of the universe; each person’s mind contains a universe, and we’re all struggling to make sense of this chaotic world. A mind, at its core, is just the universe trying to understand itself, and I don’t think we’re doing a good job of understanding, connecting, and feeling. That’s why I read and write: to try to understand what I don’t know. I only have this one life and only get to experience what I live. By reading, though, I can imagine what it’s like to be a child soldier, and maybe, then, I can try to understand what they feel, how their experiences shape the way they view the world. I don’t know what it’s like to be Anne Frank or Maya Angelou, but I can read their words, put myself in their shoes, empathize with and understand their plight. The experiences we face shape our worldview. In order to understand what others feel, we must walk a mile in their shoes.

That’s all life is: entropy and empathy.

Being a reader has helped me understand the world better. I can see the big picture, but I don’t lose sight of each individual pixel. I’m less quick to judge. I understand what I believe, and I know what my neighbor believes, and we don’t always understand each other, nor do we always agree, but arguing won’t get us anywhere. We won’t accomplish change by making our opinions louder (or in this social media age, more visible) than other people’s. Change will happen when we actively listen, and try to understand, what our opponent is saying. We listen with our ears, but we hear with our hearts.

We all want to be heard. That’s why I’m a writer. I want to give a voice to those who do not have one, or don’t know how to use it. We all have a story. Every culture since the dawn of time has told stories. Stories are the best way I can think of to connect to other people. So tell me your story, because hardly any issue in this world is black or white, and I know where I stand and why I stand there, and if you don’t stand with me, I want to know why. This world is chaos and I want to empathize.

I’m 20 years old, and I don’t know much, comparatively in the grand scheme of things. But I do know we don’t have all the answers, none of us do. We’re all people doing our best to make order out of chaos. So, “How does it work?” I have no idea, but as an English major, I know how to dissect a text, find the main idea, put it back together in my own words, and learn something from what I’ve read. I know how to take what I’m feeling and put it into words so others can understand what I’m feeling, too. I want to understand where you come from also. Because this world is entropy and empathy, and I don’t know how it works.

I only get one life, and I’m trying not to screw it up. I want to leave the world more beautiful than it was when I arrived. And I’m doing my best, one story at a time, but it’s a big world, and compared to the universe, we’re all rather small. But we all contain universes inside of us. We all can make order out of chaos and empathize.

“How’s it work?”

I imagine it works best together.

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