The Great Nothing

Opinion by Alex Bayer
July 7, 2013, 6:49 p.m.

A couple months back, I wrote about my summer plans, or really, my lack of them. Come June, I would be heading back to the suburbs without an internship or even a job at Dunkin’ Donuts to save me from the awkward pause that inevitably follows the polite question: “What are your plans this summer?” When I answered this question, I made sure to beam with the confidence of someone who was perfectly okay with doing absolutely nothing. But really, I feared the worst: I worried that I would fall into a coma of boredom. I had spent too many summers taking refuge on a sofa to discount this as a very real possibility.

So you can see why, as I watched the familiar green hills and steeple towers come into focus outside my window, I was a little worried. Had I made a mistake? I thought of the dozen internships and grants I had half-heartedly applied to, most of which ended in polite rejection emails. At least I had tried, I tried to reassure myself.

Walking through the airport, I tried to muster that full-out bliss I felt back at Christmas break, when I leaped into my bed and wrapped myself in my covers. But unlike then, this wasn’t a quick jaunt into memory lane. It was two months of nothingness staring me in the face.

But man, free time is nice. I panicked for a second when I got into a feisty argument with my dad, the slamming-doors, stomping-up-to-my-room kind of riff that culminated in me angrily making a collage to the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ emotive “Under the Bridge.” And then another moment of panic on my way to meet an old friend for coffee (why the hell are you nervous, I asked myself). It’s been weird reconciling these two versions of me: the one forged from 0-18, and the one who fled to California.

But they seem to be settling into each other, becoming pals. And this being-on-your-own-schedule thing is kind of great. Ah yeah: hit me up in a month, but for now, grocery shopping is like walking through a meditation garden. Even the elliptical is not so bad. Maybe because free time is so elusive at Stanford (and the free time you have is always hampered by the nagging thoughts of what you should be doing), I really relish it now.

Truth be told, I needed it more than I would like to admit. In the spring, I felt myself unraveling like a spool of thread. I was burned out from two quarters of academics, had never really given myself a proper break, and worst of all, I noticed how impatient and restless I was, too wrapped up in my own head to listen to the friends who were asking for, or not asking but needing, someone to listen. “I feel like I’m losing myself,” I said to a friend wearily. More accurately, it felt like my compassionate, 2.0 self was wearing thin and the flaws I had taken pains to override (my impatience, my introversion) were frothing to the surface, and like evil sea banshees, dragging me back down back to subterranean, prehistoric Alex. I finished sophomore year less with a bang than a whimper, crawling out into the light like Sméagol coming out of his cave.

Back in May, I became aware that I couldn’t “think.” An extremely bright girl I know said it best when she said that she felt “dumb.” This came as she was getting straight A’s and taking 20 units. At Stanford, we expend so much mental energy on academics that we hardly have any brainpower left for aimless thought. Since I had learned the art of self-discipline, mental self-flagellation really, when I noticed my mind wandering, I whipped it back into line. My common sense screamed at me this was all wrong, that writing poetry was what I wanted and needed, but against the booming dictator inside me, its voice was little more than a whisper, the measly plea of a doomed soldier.

You know those rides that are shaped like a cylinder, the ones that speed up to such a high velocity until you’re pinned against the wall? That was how it felt. In the midst of essays and research and the never-ending stream of emails and to-do lists, I never had the time to stand back and process what was happening. At its worst, the quarter system is a bit like whiplash, maybe even like the experience of trauma, when just enough adrenaline kicks in to deliver you to a safe exit.

I thought in the boxes that were asked of me, but to think outside of these boxes, to think expansively and critically and creatively, was asking for trouble. A bit like a monkey inside a cage, being probed by presumptuous scientists. They ask him questions like, which hand am I holding the food in? What color is this card? What they don’t ask are the questions the monkey may very well be asking himself, as you or I would if we found ourselves in a cage being interrogated by strangers. Why are these men probing me? Why would they do such a thing to me?

Do we resemble these chimps, trained to answer questions about American history and physics, but not to think about why we’re sitting in a classroom in the first place, when in theory we could be doing a million other things? Sometimes, when I’m sitting in a class or doing a particularly dreadful all-nighter, I wonder, “Why am I subjecting myself to such a torturous class that I am not actually taking anything from?”

But those left-brain self-discipline instincts kick in, introducing a string of rational antibodies: “I’m almost done with it; I would need to retake it in the future; a ‘W’ doesn’t look too good on a transcript.” This brief moment of wider, critical thought has passed, effectively inoculated. It’s impractical to ask these kinds of questions, and maybe even dangerous when the pace is so relentless: they could derail you.

And yet, any question that makes us look introspectively into the way we lead our lives is important and useful in a way that an esoteric fact about Andrew Jackson’s political views will never be. There it is again: the tension between common sense and what we’ve been taught is important. That brain that seems to live in our hearts is so hazy and indecipherable, and yet it’s so terribly strong sometimes. I wish I had the courage to ignore everything I’ve learned and listen to it.

Which in kind of a weird way, relates back to this whole notion of nothingness. It’s not just that I can think again. I can…listen. It’s kind of like when you’re meditating, and you reach that rare moment of absolute silence. A funny thing happens when your mind goes completely silent: the thoughts come to you, as if you’re dreaming, but awake. And these thoughts are somehow wiser than normal, as if they’re the very answers you’ve been agonizing through hours of mental strain to arrive at. Just like that, they appeared. All you had to do was stop, and listen…

One more thing about being home, the best gift of all: I’m daydreaming again. I dream about Paris in the fall, and jet-setting adventures. In high school, I dreamed about college: the bohemian outfits, the confident smile of a girl who finally found some. I had hazy notions of a boyfriend, and visions of me in an art studio with paint all over my cheek, hair swirled in a bun like I belonged in Florence.

I had similarly ambitious visions of myself in high school, back in eighth grade, none of which came to fruition either. But it feels good to dream, to be engaged in the act of creating plans. Whether they make it past the drawing board or collapse into the dustbins of all my past fantasies won’t really matter. Like a kid building up and tearing down houses of Legos, I’m constantly creating, imagining, and thinking. I needed a blank canvas to learn how to do these things again. I can’t help but smile. Nothing could have been better than, well, nothing.

Contact Alex at [email protected].

Login or create an account

Apply to The Daily’s High School Winter Program

Applications Due Soon