A couple thousand miles of clarity

Oct. 8, 2019, 12:30 a.m.

We joke a lot about the “sophomore slump” here at Stanford, as I’m sure they do at any other university. But for me and a lot of the people who’ve surrounded me during the past year, the level of stress and occasional anguish that people often commiserate with by slapping on a goofy, overused label felt like a lot more of a “plummet” than a “slump.” 

Last year at Stanford, multiple friends and I were forced to let go of aspects of our everyday relationships — or even of ourselves — that had, by no one’s fault, bent under the weight of academic and social pressure. I spent most of spring quarter locked in my room, either throwing myself into work to avoid thinking about how I was feeling, or wallowing in my emotions so intensely (and melodramatically) that I neglected all work, which in the end only contributed to the stress. Either habit took an enormous toll on my mind and body: I lost twelve pounds from winter to the beginning of summer. I found grey strands while brushing my hair. I started taking medications for the random panic attacks I figured I shouldn’t be having. 

This past summer, I interned at a literary journal in Austin. I met my roommates, a couple of University of Texas students, on a Facebook page and arrived in Texas two days after my last final at Stanford. I only went into the office twice a week and spent the rest of my days working as a barista at a local cafe and exploring the city.

Whether there was something in the Austin water or I had just hit my limit of self-pity, my eleven weeks in The Lone Star State brought along a number of curious revelations. Though only a two-hour plane ride away from school, it was as though I could see my life and the web of relationships I had cultivated at Stanford suspended in front of me like a poorly-constructed map. 

At first, I was overwhelmed and disappointed by the ways in which I felt that the Stanford social structure promoted false contentment and often, as a result, toxicity. In my head, I complained about the ways in which my dynamics had failed me, the ways in which I found myself fed up with Stanford and all of its duck-syndromic day-to-day interactions. 

However, a phone call with a close family friend and lifelong role model completely reshaped my perspective. I had draped an air of negativity and mistrust around myself like a heavy coat and didn’t notice the weight of its burden until I cast it off: 

Over the phone, I complained, “I don’t want this anymore, I don’t want that anymore.”

She responded, “Well, what do you want?”

The fact that I had never stopped to consider this both horrified and embarrassed me. I fell headfirst into the existential crisis that a twenty-year-old shipped from a Silicon-Valley-tech-bro-producing institution to the very center of Texas might be expected to face. How was I living my life? What sort of person did I want to be? If I wasn’t that person, then who was I? And so on into infinity.

From these long stretches of headache-inducing contemplation, I developed the following observations and reminders for myself. They all operate under the assumption that I cannot necessarily change the way things are around me, but I can certainly work on myself and the way that I perceive and interact with my environment. I hope that some of these meditations might resonate with someone else out there who finds himself or herself struggling with the same things.

1. Develop an appreciation for occasional anonymity

In light of the recent obsession with social media that’s taken over our generation — which I’m certainly guilty of partaking in — I’m often disturbed by the way that I can be shown the Instagram profile of another Stanford student and already know things, like who they’ve dated or which friends they’ve fallen out with, without having ever spoken to them before. 

There is an underlying energy cultivated at Stanford that prioritizes the need for constant networking. Some students will move on to be big CEOs, others award-winning scientists. I’ve heard firsthand students talking about wanting to become friends with other kids simply because they suspect those kids will one day become rich and famous. The school seems to shrink exponentially in size by virtue of the fact that so many people know all about the lives and accomplishments and relationships of one another. 

This happens because of the unfortunate but obvious reality that people talk. One of the things that bothered me during my summertime meditations was the fact that I noticed that more than one relationship from my two years at school was based more on discussing the lives and problems of other people rather than bonding over shared interests, passions or senses of humor. I’ve had many conversations start with, “So who are you friends with at Stanford?” to be followed by, “Oh! So you must know [blank] then,” as though the only thing that could merit my talking with someone at school would be a mutual connection to someone else they knew. 

While in Austin, I found it oddly refreshing that I could walk for miles and miles without anyone recognizing me from a class or from a social media profile. Whereas I used to be afraid of being alone for too long, in Austin I sometimes found myself most at ease while surrounded by people I had never met and who knew nothing about me. I thought less about each decision I made because I didn’t feel as observed or constricted. 

I want to make it a priority to get off campus more — to visit San Francisco, to go on hikes alone. To spend minutes or hours or days unknown or unobserved by anyone but myself so that I can act as myself without worrying about how it might affect the flow of dynamics around me.

This brings me to my second point. 

2. Topics of conversation must extend beyond talking about other people

I hope to shift how I speak to people by avoiding gossip or speculations about the lives of my peers. I think a big part of what motivates people to keep up with the developments and events and drama of the lives of people they’ve only met once or twice (or maybe not at all) is the fact that we are in a fishbowl and are bound to run into one another all the time because of the routines and environments we have established. Thus, very often we feel that our relationships must be kept pleasant, even at the expense of becoming superficial. 

I like to imagine what would happen if I were to run into one of my peers, without ever having met them or seen their social media before, in the middle of an enormous city. I like to imagine what our conversation would be like if we entirely removed Stanford from the equation, if we had no mutual friends or past interactions … What would we talk about? What would we have in common? What substance would exist in our interaction without talking about others we knew? The answers, I’m sure, would be endless. We just need the space and diligence to get at them. 

3. Stop counting down

Stanford is future-oriented. The quarter system only gives you a few weeks between the next midterm, the next final, the next internship. I’ve noticed that, often when I ask people how they’re doing, they answer with, “It’s Week 3, you know how it is.” I answer, “Yeah, totally,” but the reality is that you could fill in “Week 3” with any given week, and the answer would always mean the same thing: “I have a lot of work to do and I’m tired.”

A friend recently asked me something that shouldn’t have come as such a shock to me: “What if we didn’t count the weeks? What if Wednesday was just Wednesday?” I’ve implemented this tactic for the past few weeks, and I have to say, it has made a significant difference. I feel less pressure to constantly work toward the next big thing, I feel less dread for whatever ominous entity is looming over the horizon, I feel more present and more happy with myself.

People have asked me if I’ve started applying to internships for next summer. It’s October. Why should I?

People have asked me if I’m worried that majoring in English will lead to an inevitable dead end. I’m twenty. I have time. 

4. Don’t think about what you don’t want, think about what you do

I think it all comes back to the question that my family friend posed:

What do I want? 

What do I want to talk about with my friends?

What do I want to eat for lunch today?

What do I want to do to make myself happier at this very moment?
Giving oneself the space to think about these things could make all the difference in the world.

Contact Clara Spars at cspars ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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