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Finding awe and wonder on campus: Reflections on Phosphorescence

A run down on the best spaces around the Camperdown campus.

Art by Isla Mowbray.

Life is hard. Crumbly and unsteady, we are routinely overcome by self-improvement trends that undeniably find ways to pull us apart and make us feel awful.

As we are routinely reminded by conservative newspapers and rouge Twitter hounds, our position as the unfortunate prototypes of the internet-plugged world leaves us primed to gobble up poisonous advice out of a coaxing, pixelated hand. Fourteen ways to wear this very specific bum-bag, what I eat in a day (for weight loss, hehe), how to retire by thirty, best ever skin care routine, etc. etc. We are obsessed with image, and addicted to self-improvement. Rarely satisfied, preachy, but critical — we are puffed up and deflated by ourselves.

Although the sticky tendrils of internet trends continue to pull us into a well of unforgiving self-obsession, being a University student is an experience that is fraught with self-evaluation and doubt in a manner that, I would argue, is more visceral than the stabs launched at us by hot TikTokkers. Between classes we fret about our career progression and our abilities, we flip our skin inside out comparing ourselves to our peers, we question our reputation, identity, friendships, word choices, lunch choices, and cry about essay deadlines. And for each of these deficiencies, there’s advice to make us better – drink more water, use this study method, revise before bed.

It seems we are compelled to make ourselves better, to keep turning our eyes to face our own insides, and when we do, everything goes dark.

Against the darkness of introspection, Julia Baird’s Phosphorescence (2020) is strong and luminous. Phosphorescence is difficult to describe – a sort of philosophical masterwork, lyrical memoir, and tolerable self-help guide rolled into a deliciously readable book. Among her expansive wisdom stoked from multiple near-death experiences, Dr Baird’s primary recommendation to soften hard lives is to hunt for awe and wonder. She writes,

“we spend a lot of time in life trying to make ourselves feel bigger – to project ourselves, occupy space, command attention, demand respect – so much so that we seem to have forgotten how comforting it can be to feel small and experience the awe that comes from being silenced by something greater than ourselves, something unfathomable, unconquerable and mysterious.”

This advice, to look outside of oneself, is not only a Romantic’s dream, but compelling advice. Of course, for the existentialists among us, such advice is heady – feeling like an insignificant blotch on the face of human history is indeed a risk. But there is something soothing about feeling dwarfed that makes the pangs of day-to-day self-consciousness feel manageable.

So, where can we go hunting for awe and wonder on a campus so unrelenting and loud?

The Quadrangle is difficult to ignore. Its immensity, to begin, does a good job of making even the tallest students feel short. There, I often struggle to suppress a lick of elitism that makes me feel mighty, but I’ll equally get lost in tightly knitted spindly vine leaves, rows and rows of old names engraved on plaques, humming echoes of briefly amplified conversations in hallways, immaculate lawns and gargoyles. If experiencing awe means appreciating details, the Quad will inevitably hold you captive.

Ideally, we are all here motivated by insatiable intellectual curiosity, committed to sinking into the intricacies of human anatomy, the expansive sky, conflict or complicated ethical dilemmas. Realistically, we are worn out and unbothered. Still, wonder is very accessible. A short trip to the Chau Chak Wing Museum is usually enough to slap me with a sustaining sense of wonder. It is hard to care so much about all that I have and have not when faced with centuries’ old artefacts, dense with clues about who we are and have always been. Busts representing people who were also likely wrapped up in their own lives – feeling unfulfilled, completely neutral and exuberantly joyous –– are now used to piece together meaning for ours.

Silence is less easily discoverable. Sydney is encased by an unrecoverable hubbub. Trucks grumble on City Rd, coffee shops whistle, people talk (even in the library, geez). For those seeking silence, an underutilised resource is Victoria Park pool. Get in it. Swimming has a way to make loud thoughts, and loud everything else, dribble into tiny bubbles and pitter-patters. Few things are as freeing as feeling completely weightless and yokey, encased by noise cancelling water.

Phosphorescence stresses that seeking awe, wonder and silence can be as simple as finding inspiration in the ordinary and the temporary. This is resourceful. Micro-doses of reprieve are available in the brief life of wispy clouds, recognising yourself in your friends, a surprisingly good muffin, a compliment, seeing the moon at 2pm.

Taking this advice, I’m fighting the impulse to whip myself for being deficient – for not seeking an acceptable quantity of awe or checking off a daily quota of silence so as to ensure that I’m constantly becoming a better person. Life advice, no matter how it is delivered, is a trap in that way.

Perhaps we ought to digress from the impulse of seeking awe and wonder as a way to self-improve, and suppress the apparent burden that partners self-cultivation. Self-improvement need not be scheduled and regimented. It need only be a shift that takes the edge off. A light in an internet-addicted student lifestyle that can so often turn dark. Phosphorescence.