Empathizing with Reality
I’ll be honest: I never followed Anthony Bourdain closely. Part of me feels guilty. As a travel writer, Bourdain represented qualities and a skillset that I dream of developing. He was able to engage with foreign cultures understanding them to be equal in complexity and value to his own, while still appreciating the beauty and eclecticness of difference. His passing, along with that of Kate Spade, brought an influx of conversation in the public domain regarding how we discuss challenges with mental health, general issues in wellness, and what is positive and destructive in that regard.
At the risk of sounding basic, trendy, or a little too much like an inspirational Twitter account, the sentiment that has been most salient to me is the toxicity of public presentation on digital and social media. That’s not to say that a manicured public image can’t exist person to person, but new media tools have allowed society to both emphasize the good and systematically hide the bad.
I’m guilty of this, as are many of my friends. It’s easy for people who seek to be high achieving to bask in their everyday glories and simultaneously compartmentalize the unavoidable difficulties brought about by a strange and complex world.
I’ve been trying to reconcile a few things. I know I’ve contributed to this issue; how can I support a solution?
How do you express accomplishment to significant people in your circle, friends, etc. without illustrating an inaccurate image of personal perfection?
I’ve used this platform to express both achievement and turmoil, but the latter requires a much greater deal of vulnerability, candor, and honest self-interrogation. The reality in this context is that college is hard. Some of my classes have been profoundly difficult. Navigating a developing social understanding of myself and others has brought me as much grief as it has unabashed joy.
Last semester was by far my most difficult at Oberlin. Rather than solely lamenting in the prosperous moments, I think it’d be valuable for myself and (maybe) others to reflect on the trials that I passed with struggle and the battles I didn’t win.
I nearly failed a class. That’s not something I ever imagined I’d say as an aggressively academic student in high school. The course was Chemistry and the Environment (CHEM 051). I registered for this course because I was one class short of meeting my distribution requirements. I had taken a “zero level” course in Neuroscience the prior semester, and found it to be manageable in difficulty, straightforward, and dare I say fun. My understanding was that zero level courses were for non-majors, and were notably less difficult than other courses, particularly in the sciences.
Fast forward and I felt like I was drowning. I hardly ever understood the course material in full, and even after hours of studying and tutoring, I still managed to fail the first two tests. In distress, I declared the Pass/No Pass option for this class in an effort to save my GPA from the wrath of one unexpectedly challenging course. By the end of the semester, I was in a hole and was certainly at risk of failing. I went to office hours to discuss my circumstances with my professor and he was empathetic, understanding, but firm in his desire for me to do well on the final (such an act of grandeur would lead to me passing the course).
This was a tall request for me given my performance throughout the semester, but I was steadfast in my desire to not fail. The next couple weeks included some pretty dramatic studying sessions; my friend Fatima was really my savior (and tutor) and did her best to review concepts that seemed foreign and out of my grasp.
Then the exam came and I felt like I tanked. For the first time since high school, I had a panic attack right in the middle of the final exam (one time, ironically in my high school chemistry class, I actually vomited at the sight of an exam). I had cried on the phone with my mom the night before and knew I was shit out of luck.
Chemistry and the Environment had stressed me out beyond my control. I struggled to eat that week, I was tired and lethargic, and mostly I was sad. I thought I had failed. I had never failed a class before. I didn’t know what failing really felt like.
The time in between exams and getting my semester transcript back was challenging. Randomly, I’d think of the course and become overwhelmed with anxiety. Each time that happened, I would check grades online. Eventually my professor posted it.
In that moment of discovery, I experienced shock, thrill, relief, excitement, but mostly indifference. By that time, I had come to terms with the idea of not passing even though it caused me stress and frustration.
Chemistry wasn’t my only challenge last year and I honestly struggled a lot and failed lots of other pursuits. I
· Was rejected from the Honors Program in Politics
· Was rejected from this program called “Black on Campus”
· Booked a wrong flight and had to hassle and change the date
· Didn’t do as well as anticipated in my Race in Congress course
· Ended friendships with a few folks I had been immensely close to
· Was in a perpetual student government conflict that brought me serious anxiety and grief
· Didn’t do laundry for so long that at one point everything I owned was dirty (I washed at that point, no worries)
· Got two parking tickets
· Battled a nasty sinus infection that left me weak, low energy, and basically room-bound for a week
I write about my trials not to attract sympathy, but to contribute to the world I want to live in. That is a world where people can both feel welcome to openly speak about the aspects of life that trouble them and in that same spirit revel in their success and accomplishment. College is hard, and even my friends who seemingly have it all figured out constantly share with me that they don’t. We really don’t. But we’re trying, and I’ve made peace with that.