One of my least favorite aspects of wisdom is how difficult it is to acquire. Acquiring wisdom takes time, of course. But it oftentimes also takes emotional difficulty, self-doubt, and, my least favorite of all, soul-searching. I don’t know if people exist who intrinsically possess wisdom without having to acquire it through various ordeals; but if they do exist, I’m definitely not one of them. Frequently, even when someone gives me sage advice, I dismiss it before eventually coming around to it through a process that somehow always involves me making my life unnecessarily difficult.
And that’s how it took me until this semester to realize that my number of extracurriculars is not in any way proportional to my happiness or fulfillment in life.
During the Spring of 2019, I was very much of the conviction that the more formal commitments I had, the more productive I would be. And the more productive I would be, the happier I would become. During that semester, I was taking 5.5 credits while also juggling commitments to The Phoenix, SGO, and two on-campus jobs. I wanted to feel good about myself for being a productive member of society; but in all actuality, I only felt drained. Constantly. That feeling of exhaustion led to me feeling bad about feeling bad, and then feeling bad about feeling bad about feeling bad. I put myself through a positive cycle of continually doing more to try to feel better, only to end up feeling more burned-out than before.
As an objective and impersonal statement, it is so easy to say that glorification of capitalism has led people in the United States to base their own value solely off of their perception of their own productivity. It’s basically a formulaic sound byte at this point that people repeat without ascribing any true meaning to the words. But on a personal level, looking into my own productive yet unsatisfactory life, it became so difficult to convince myself that the number of bullet points on my resumé didn’t define me or my worth as a person.
By Fall 2019, I felt burned out enough that I didn’t take on any jobs other than my role as a DPA and resigned from SGO. I didn’t know what to do with the extra time I found during the coming months, so I spent a fair amount of it soul-searching — now that I had parted ways with the activities I used to define my fulfillment in life, how would I manage to find fulfillment again?
For an embarrassingly long time, I participated in activities not because I felt a meaningful desire to, but simply because I felt as if I should. As if adding one more bauble to my resumé would make me whole as a person and end my perpetual quest for fulfillment and reconciliation with happiness. As if it would be fruitful to continue to participate in activities that I felt like I should do, rather than the ones that I wanted to do.
But fulfillment is a myth, and is not a singular endpoint to aspire to achieve. Likewise, the Platonic Ideal of the Swattie — the people who successfully juggle five extracurriculars, four jobs, a full social life, and a curriculum of academic rigor — are not indicative of the average Swat student. They’re simply a highly visible minority, because they do everything. Some of the most successful Swatties, in terms of academic success and general happiness, are students who participate in a couple of extracurricular activities which they’re passionate about but also have normal people hobbies, such as birdwatching, hanging out with friends, and playing video games.
Frankly, it disappoints me that even at Swarthmore, a college where it’s difficult to go a single week without hearing someone screech about self-care, the notion persists that it’s somehow noble to pour endless time and energy into a cause or activity without receiving any happiness or nourishment from it. I’m not the right person to concretely prescribe what is and isn’t self-care. But I believe that in discussions about self-care, it’s always necessary to ask oneself what the term “self” really refers to — a fictionalized, idealized version of one’s future self, or a present self?
For so long, my entire conception of self-care hinged on the idea that I would eventually feel satisfied with my entire life, but despite the length for which I waited and persisted in my efforts, I never became that satisfied, idealized version of myself. And, as I only became more tired and weary, I began to understand that overexertion is neither valiant nor a form of self-care.
Treasuring endless ambition as a core value is simply unsustainable, yet the practice persists and forces students to put themselves through unnecessary unhappiness in the pursuit of a platonic ideal. I wish that there were some panacea to the all-or-nothing mindset that so many students grow up with, some sort of elixir that everyone could take that would make everyone stop playing misery poker and understand the danger of fetishizing overcommitment. To my chagrin, there is none — but redefining success as being actually attainable, although difficult, is a good start. These days, instead of spending my days fantasizing about overcommitment, I do regular people things in my free time. I’ve taken up embroidery, and I like to think that I’m pretty good at it. I work for The Phoenix, not because of some perceived obligation to my own ambition, but because I find it rewarding. And on most afternoons, you can find me peacefully sitting in Cornell with a pair of binoculars, watching the birds.