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A Self-Portrait

Each time I sat down to write this "self-portrait," I would write a few sentences and then just stop, feeling that these sentences did not truly express my thoughts at all. They seemed flawed, like they were missing something. So I would leave and come back later to try again, and each time the same feeling that something was lacking in the sentences made me stop writing. For weeks I continued like this wondering why I was having so much difficulty writing what should have been the easiest thing to describe-myself. And then, today, while I was reading for my philosophy tutorial I suddenly came across a line in my reading that made me think about my attempts at writing my self portrait and I suddenly realized what the problem was. The line I read came from a book called Culture and Value by Wittgenstein, and it was, "You cannot write more truly about yourself than you are. That is the difference between writing about yourself and writing about external things. You write about yourself from your own height. Here you don't stand on stilts or on a ladder but on your bare feet." I suddenly realized that my problem was that I expected these words on paper to be me. I expected them to be an end into themselves, to say definitely this is who I am. I now understand that such a task is simply impossible and that even as I write these words, who I am is already changing and that ultimately the person who finishes writing this will not be the same person who had begun it for it will change my perspective on my own life as well. These words are meant to be only my shadow, that in a sense they are only a picture of me and not in a sense the real me. However, in this case it is the depiction that is important. The purpose is not to be, "Here, this is what and who I am!" but rather, "Listen to my story and if I have interested you enough to look into your own life than I have succeeded". What I have to write is not meant to be a historically accurate picture, and by this I mean that I do not write it for people interested in facts, but rather it is meant to incite a new feeling within myself and within others; it is meant to create a new perspective for us both. Now with this new understanding firmly fixed in my mind I find the words flow easily and it only takes me a short time to paint this following picture. So here it is.

I was raised learning both English and Greek at the same time. I learned the American traditions and holidays and I learned the Greek holidays. I attended both American public school and I went four hours a week to Greek school at my local Church. I would attend American school all day and then afterwards I would go off to Greek school and then return home and speak Greek in my home. At first I have to say I was slightly reserved at this division, it seemed almost as if I was leading two different lives. I was reluctant to tell others that I had to go to Greek school; I guess at such a young age I was afraid to be different from the other kids. I was sensitive towards this other half of my life because I felt that no one else had the same background. It always bothered me when I was very young and American students would never be able to pronounce my surname and I would have to spell it out for them. When I look back on those years now all I can think of is how happy I am to have been given the chance as a child to grow up with diversity already within me. I believe that being raised as a Greek Orthodox American eventually gave me the strength to follow my own beliefs and goals in life. It gave me a perspective of other religions and peoples that I still hold to this day. It gave me a different understanding of what it means to be American than many other American children would receive. Today, I am very proud of my Greek Orthodox heritage and I am very happy to explain the significance of my surname and how to pronounce it when someone asks me.

I have a great deal of respect for my parents and my family. My mother did not come to America until she was twenty years old and she spoke hardly any English. She is now a teacher, and except for her accent you could never guess she wasn't born in America. Her background is so different from my own, and her childhood was one where even at the age of ten she was already responsible for cooking dinner for her entire family. She has suffered hardships that I can only imagine and as I grow older I am only more impressed by how much she has achieved. My father was born in New York, and he also had to work very hard to get to where he is today. For both of them coming from backgrounds that were not privileged and having parents that were not educated, they managed to go so far and learn so much. I can even see how proud my grandfather is of my father because he went to school and became a doctor, and his entire family will talk about him so proudly and come to him with all their problems even when it has nothing to do with his field at all. I think this is one of the most important aspects of my family, that it is so close and when you speak of immediate family you are probably already involving more than twenty people.

The other person who has been a serious influence in my life is my grandfather from my mother's side. He came to America when I was born and became slightly sick, so both my grandparents never went back to Greece for more than a summer at a time. They have lived with us ever since. My grandmother passed away a couple of years ago, but my grandfather still lives with us. He has become a fixed part of my life at home and the fact that he has lived in my house my entire life has made us very close. I was raised on hearing his stories from back home and about my family in Greece. I have so much respect for my grandfather because he led a life with such different pursuits than most people do today. My grandfather has never had any sort of an education, and he was one of twelve siblings and was also a twin. Their family was very poor and they often didn't have enough food, so my grandfather's twin brother died at a very young age and he also lost most of his other siblings to hunger. My grandfather also went off to fight in three separate wars so he spent many years away from his family and lost two of his brothers in these wars. When I consider everything he has been through part of me sees it as so tragic, but the other part of me sees it as a struggle that has educated my grandfather far better than any school or academics ever could. I always wonder that I am so lucky not to have suffered like he had to and it is because of everything he did then to take care of his family, and at the same time I wonder if perhaps we lose track of what is important in life because most of us haven't suffered like he has. Either way, my grandfather is now 95 years old and still living with my family and for me he is much like a fresh perspective that keeps me from forgetting what I believe is truly important and from losing myself wherever I am.

There are some memories that stand out more for everyone and it is often these memories we look back to in order to help us make decisions to the future. When I was young my parents took me on this trip to all the greatest monasteries in all of Greece. And I used to sneak away from them and go running through the monastery halls in search for something I couldn't even put a name too. I thought that hidden in one of these closets or behind some secret door in these old monasteries was hiding that key to the world and the answer to my questions about God and religion and life. I dreamed that there existed somewhere a tangible grail waiting for just my hands that would divulge its mystical secrets to me. It was a boyish game to find the fantastic among the earthly to search for the sacred and find it hidden underneath the table. But I still remember it so clearly today, and I look at myself then and I can see clearly where I am today and what I want to study begin in that young boy's dreams. And it makes me happy to know that there is something in me which is still like that young boy then who believes that one day I may find my grail, though I no longer think of it in that way.

When I consider my childhood I believe myself extremely lucky in that I was afforded all the privileges any child could want. I was raised to be very aware of tradition, family, and my religious background, but at the same time I attended a state high school, I played football and ran track, and was very lucky to be able to attend a good University and now be here in Oxford. I also realize the irony of all these statements, since I am only 20 years old now and I realize that most of my life still lies ahead of me and it is to the future that I really must place my attention. There were two other events in my life that I remember so very clearly that have only happened in the last three years that in many ways have changed my perspective and way of thinking. One of these events took place during a weekend in October when I returned home from college and decided to take a ride on the subway down to the site of the World Trade Centers to see them first hand. Contrary to what you may be thinking, the moment I remember most is not being at the site where the towers once stood, but a few minutes on that subway ride through the city. I stepped into one of the further subway cars which was moderately packed, and when I looked around I realized there was a homeless man lying unconscious on the bottom of the car. I became alarmed at this but I did not at first do anything because as I looked around I realized that no one else in the subway was even paying attention to this man and all these other people who were doctors, lawyers, and businessmen should have been more capable of helping than I was. I turned to the man standing next to me, who was dressed in a full suit and carrying a briefcase, and I asked him, "Shouldn't someone make sure that man is all right?" and he turned to me and almost sneering said, "Don't bother boy, he isn't worth your time or mine". I stood there shocked for a moment, and then realized that the train had reached my stop so I got out to switch trains. After a few minutes I suddenly felt the most profound feeling of shame and the entire time I spent down at the site of the World Trade Center I could not stop thinking about that man in that subway. I made a promise to myself that day, that regardless of where I went in life I would never become like that other man on the subway who I had spoken to; I promised myself that I would never be indifferent to human beings around me.

The other event that I would just like to say a few words about took place only this past summer. My family and I went on a vacation together, which we had not done in a few years, to the Dominican Islands. We spent the week there wonderfully and on the last day, a couple of minutes before we were leaving for the airport, my younger sister (who is only two years younger) and I were walking out of our hotel room and down some steps in front of our room when my sister suddenly slipped and fell down the stairs hitting her head on the steps. I at first didn't think she was badly hurt and I helped her up, but she kept complaining about a pain in her leg where I assumed she had fell and she said she wanted to go back into the room to sit down. So she went ahead of me and with me following we walked into our room which was only a few feet away. As she was walking she suddenly passed out and just fell forward hitting her forehead and chin on the corner of the wall right in front of her. As I grabbed her she was bleeding all over her face and she was completely unconscious. I have never felt as helpless as I did at that moment and all I could do was yell at a porter who was down the hall. Even to this day when I think about that moment I have no idea how to describe it. There are simply no words for what I felt then or what I feel now. I felt completely alone and all I wanted to do was take my sister's place there on the floor. She regained consciousness and we rushed her to a doctor on the island, and while we were waiting for the doctor to come to the office I kept talking to her to make sure she stayed awake. I have never been more scared as I was at that moment when I looked into my sister's eyes because they were completely calm. She had no memory of the accident; she did not even remember the last week. I had to keep repeating where we were and what happened and she would simply repeat them back to me and then promptly ask me the same questions again. After about twenty minutes of this she suddenly felt the pain from the cuts on her forehead and chin, she suddenly realized what had happened, and she broke into tears. I have never felt so happy to see someone cry as I did at that moment. Her tears were the first sign to me that told me she would be all right, her eyes were suddenly filled with fear and pain and I have never been happier to see those very human eyes staring back at me. My sister ended up being fine, she had suffered a concussion obviously and though she still has the scars on her face they are hardly noticeable and will fade with time. However, I know I will never forget that day and I will never take for granted the closeness I feel for my sister or my family. Simply writing about that experience makes me realize how much I do care for my family and how far I would go to make them happy; to protect them from any type of suffering or pain.

So right now I am here in Oxford studying history and philosophy and preparing for the end of term and Christmas vacation with my family back home. If I were to be asked why I decided to come to Oxford for a year instead of continuing at Boston College for my third year I would have to say it was because I needed a change. I love Boston College and I have made some of my best friends there but I felt like I was simply flying through college. I thought that I was not being challenged at BC, that it was so easy for me to go out and party and also get good grades that everything seemed to just blur together. I also wanted to get away from mindless career fairs and meetings with career advisors; people worrying about grade point averages and their futures. I thought the best thing I could do was to come to Oxford and challenge myself to work harder and perhaps take stock of where I wished to go with my life. Well I do not regret coming to Oxford at all but it is not for the reasons I would have said a few months ago. It is not because I do more work here in Oxford than I do back at BC, actually it's probably less; but rather because it has given me a new perspective which I would not have received at BC. It made me realize how important those friends I have back at BC are; it also made me realize that perhaps it is not so important that I know specifically where me career will go but rather that I must do the most with my time in the present. I have also made excellent friends here in Oxford that have given me a new perspective on academic life as well. Being at Oxford has also given me the opportunity to study and read a lot of what I have wanted to read, being that as a visiting student here I do not have as much structured classes as I do back home. My favorite novel is The Brothers Karamazov, which I have read for my third time this term. I have taken tutorials on the topics that have interested me and I immensely enjoy the tutorial system in the college. I have also realized that students in Oxford are not so much different from those back at BC, and that they go out and party just as much as American students. I have also realized that by spending time away from those people and places that are important to me I have in some ways made them more valuable to myself as well. When I first came into the Muse, Roman, you asked me what I found most shocking in Oxford. I didn't think there was an answer to this question because Oxford was not necessarily the world I was expecting. Perhaps before coming to Oxford I was prejudiced by its history and its fame and I expected a world so much different from the one I came from, but I immediately found this so not the case. What I found most shocking was that perhaps it wasn't as different from back home at all. Of course the buildings may look more beautiful and the history may be different, but Oxford itself, what is important is the people, and as far I can see the people themselves are not much different. There are still men who have no homes and beg in the streets regardless of whether it is Oxford or Boston. You have your professors and students all with the same and different goals for life; and you have people simply trying to make a living. What is important to realize that though every person has their own thoughts and their own diversities and though it sounds cliché perhaps we all have something more in common as well.

When I wonder about the future and I think to myself what I would like to do or who I would like to become I realize that in truth I can not be idealistic enough to assume that whatever I decide now will come true. I used to dream about making some huge difference in the world or holding some very important position, but over the years I have realized that there are more important things in life than wishing to be famous or well known. If I had to say what I would wish most as a result of my life's work in the future; it would be to help as many people as I possibly can and make the greatest difference I can in the world without my name ever becoming known. I know enough about myself to be sure that when the time comes to make a decision that I will be prepared to make it by who I am at that exact moment. This is perhaps why I wish to become involved in the Muse as well and why I am writing this portrait right now. After reading the article in the student paper, I felt there was something that simply seemed very human and also very profound about the Muse project. I find that it is very easy to simply look at other people and characterize them by our own standards and not realize that they also have their own hopes, joys, and fears. I could not say now what the Muse may do to change my own perspective through working with it, but I know somehow that it is a future I may wish to explore.

I am not sure what I wish to do after college, and I have realized these past few months that I am glad I do not. I know that I will do as well as I possibly can in everything I apply myself to, and that when I do make any type of decision I will follow it through with all my power, but right at this moment I am not too concerned about what that decision will be. It may seem to be presumptuous, but I came to realize that I did not like being anxious about the future and that I saw how it drives other students to what seems points of madness. So I decided I simply would not be anxious about it, that I would not be panicked about the future but approach it as honestly as I possibly can and that is what I try to do. I am not concerned about money, though I know I want to make enough money to pay my father back for all the loans he has taken out to send both me and my sister to college. I know I want to make enough money so that he can retire and not worry about the mortgage or the bills on the house anymore.

I study philosophy because I enjoy reading what other people have decided is the truth to life so to say. I have felt anger, resentment, agreement, and been disturbed by many of the different philosophers, but thankfully I have never read anyone where my reaction has been, "Well this is the right answer to life then." I say thankfully, because I do not believe this is the pursuit of philosophy. Last year I broke my nose in a rugby match and needed surgery because I could not breathe clearly, and I remember the doctor speaking to me as he gave me the anesthesia, and he was asking me about philosophy, and he said, "So, who is your favorite philosopher?" and I remember looking at him in confusion as the anesthesia kicked in. I was thinking to myself, ". . . favorite philosopher? Are you supposed to have a favorite philosopher? Is that possible if you really wish to study philosophy?" I never answered his question but I remembered it hours later and I thought to myself, "I should have said me, of course."