Becoming Human: Stories of a Comet

Introductions: Perihelion

” I seek to lead my NUS life … in a manner which will make me and my community fully and intensely alive.” | Personal Statement, NUS Scholarship Application, 2013

What does it mean to be alive?

Everyone seems to have an answer to this question. Ask a philosopher or a priest. Ask an old woman or a young boy. At some point, in different contexts and moments, we have all tried to take a stab at this question, with varying results and responses.

My NUS scholarship application in 2013 went to the very core of a question I had been asking for years. What was my place in this world? What did it mean to be a human being?

I struggled trying to write this ePortfolio. It’s difficult trying to abstract several distinct learning points from the complex, marinating stew of the experience that is daily life. Inconsistent memories and emotions compound the difficulty. Reality is far more complex, interlaced and interconnected than a few ‘lessons learnt’. But I also realized that this was precisely the challenge.

“The unexamined life is not worth living” | Socrates

If we are to divine any sense of where we want to proceed, it is sometimes useful to think back on how far we have come, even if our memories of the past are unreliable and inaccurate (as they often are). I would like to think that the past few years at the National University of Singapore have not been a complete waste of time. Indeed, they have been incredibly enjoyable ones. Horizons have been opened to me, both intellectual and physical ones. Because of USP and NUS, I have ventured to Europe (on an exchange semester), I have learnt to see spaces, ideas, peoples as they are presented, and as they were.

But more than just a place where I learnt things, I would like to imagine that my time at NUS has taught me more about being human. I like to think I am more than a better-oiled machine at the end of these four years. I like to imagine (and what we can imagine, we eventually become) that I have learnt a little more about becoming a better human being.

And how do we define ‘better’? At the close of my scholarship application, which had asked me to:

Describe in less than 2000 characters, your aspirations and intentions while studying at NUS and how you intend to contribute to the University.”

I had said, clear-eyed and matter-of-factly, that

“it is too early (and perhaps presumptuous) to promise too much.  But I believe that my experience in building and leading good teams, and my passion for the Humanities, will allow me to contribute to NUS uniquely and significantly.”

Now, as I near the end of my undergraduate career, it is perhaps not “too early” anymore; that it finally time to think about what I have learnt, and how my time here at NUS has been a boon (or a bane) to this university community. I would like to think that I have become a better human being. That in some way, I have lived up to the claim I had made three years ago in 2013, when I ended my Personal Statement on a single sentence:

“I seek to burn bright in NUS, and in doing so, make the world a little warmer for those around me.”

Have I?

Like a comet on an uncertain trajectory, I have had the privilege of being drawn into this NUS orbit for the past few years. I think my time here has taught me to live life more intensely, and more fully.

This ePortfolio is titled ‘Becoming Human: Stories of a Comet“, because it draws together themes and ideas that have been with me for a long time. I have always been curious about what it means to be a human being, living and experiencing this reality we have been embedded, and yet fascinated by how transient these experiences can be. Hence the metaphor of a comet –  brightly burning individuals, tracking our way through uncharted, midnight skies.

The introduction of this small collection of reflections is entitled “Perihelion”, to describe the point in the orbit of a comet when it is closest to the sun, a bright mass of burning gas. The term is taken from Ancient Greek, combining two words: “peri” (near), and “helios” (sun). I believe this is also an apt description for my time in the university – when I was closest to the accumulated sum total of illuminating human knowledge about the world around us.

Organised around the theme of our human senses, the next few entries will explore how my experiences at NUS have helped to leaven my understanding of what it means to be more fully alive, and more deeply human.

Hello there, it’s nice to have you here today. My name is Ruizhi, and I am a fourth-year History+USP major who has always been curious about the world around him. I dislike introductions, because they are so often only one-dimensional impressions of anyone. And yet we must begin somewhere, to go anywhere. As a comet travels through the darkness of space it accretes ice and other material to it. It changes.

Read on if you want to know what a comet learns about becoming human.