Alivia Anne Thompson
We all know that high school is the place where our quirky, yet truly authentic versions of our younger selves come to die. High school is a messy process. We are bombarded with social expectations and labels of what is “in” or “out.” As an impressionable freshman, my developing identity stood as a blank canvas, although the paint brush was not always in my hands. It was often in the hands of friends, family, teachers, coaches, and even strangers. Many of their brush strokes created a crowded canvas based on superficial things—what I wore, who I surrounded myself with, the music I listened to, what I looked like. I found it all too easy to fall victim to constrictive social stereotypes. The daunting question of, “Who really am I?” loomed over me as social perceptions remained out of alignment with who I truly wanted to be. These two public and private identities came together as oil and water, existing side by side, though far too stubborn to ever mix. I felt fearful that I had lost my only chance to create the identity that I had always wanted for myself: the girl who loved to learn. In an attempt to connect with that aspect of myself that had been tucked away and compromised, I did the only thing that felt right: I surrendered myself entirely to my academic and intellectual passion.
In the spring of my junior year, I signed up for a class called Religion and Science. Assessing the two seemingly contrary realms from a philosophical perspective, the course dives into the defining components of the universe and our perception of it. I was immediately infatuated with the material, as it dared me to expand my mind and explore the larger questions of human behavior. Initially, I viewed religion as entirely separate and in conflict with science. With religion never occupying a significant role in my life, I failed to understand the source of hope and meaning, and the happiness it serves to others. I had perceived religion as an entirely emotional and spiritual way of thinking, rooted in mystical concepts. Science, on the other hand, was real, tangible. The two were parallel lines racing to define the meaning of life in distinct and separate ways. At least that’s what I thought.
I came to fall deeply in love with the class. For those blissful 43 minutes a day, I felt alive: debates that made my heart race, lectures that triggered every emotion possible, fascinating information that sent chills through my body, radiating like energy. The classroom served as a safe haven for me, but also a space of possibility, of the known and unknown, and an opportunity to expand my own little perspective of the world. With every new lesson, reading, or lecture, I found myself making connections, disproving prior beliefs, and questioning all of which I had yet to learn. I lived vicariously through Carl Sagan, Isaac Newton, and Albert Einstein. I researched and read and continued to piece together religion and science as though I were Nancy Drew and the universe was my mystery to solve. With every new realization that many of the world’s most influential scientists had been religious, I felt as though I had connected two pieces that I had previously thought were from opposite ends of the spectrum. For the first time in my life, I recognized the emotion and energy—and the true power—that resides in knowledge and education. For the first time in my life, I felt unapologetically myself.
By the end of the course, I discussed my personal discovery in a final essay, claiming that “science cannot be fundamentally understood without religion; the existence of science would be inherently changed without the belief of religion, and vice versa.” The two serve equal and immensely important roles in each of our paths to our ultimate truth. My change in heart during the course perfectly mirrored the hundreds of perceptions of who I am that exist in the minds of others, and my idea of who I am and who I want to be in the future. Our identities are not comprised of a single checklist of characteristics and beliefs, but a complex combination of outward perceptions and internal searching. Our identities do not exist in a state of conflict, but are weaved together, in the way that my smile mirrors yours, your goofiness emphasizes my own, my intellectual curiosity feeds off of yours. There are a million versions of each of us, each version adding a piece to our complex selves—our own colorful canvases. My own masterpiece stands strong and beautiful, ready for colors to be added in the future, but I am confident that my love of learning will remain the brightest in the picture.
In hindsight, I am grateful for the time I spent grappling with who I truly want to be. Every small interaction I had, every mistake I made, and every personality I tried on had contributed to this version of who I am today. And as I spent so many days last spring weaving together religion and science as two roads on the path to the ultimate truth, I had found a way to appreciate the hundreds of roads leading to my ultimate truth.