Every time I encounter a prospective student visiting campus I am asked the inevitable question, "What is your least favorite thing about Oberlin?" It is routine for me to laugh while I think through the most recent interactions I have had on campus. Each semester something new happens that allows me to identify things about Oberlin's culture that affect me.
More and more I am noticing a particular kind of drain that is affecting quite literally everyone here and that is my least favorite thing about Oberlin. Emily, an Oberlin Blog alum, wrote this amazing post called "The Culture of Busyness: My Least Favorite Thing about Oberlin" as a brief but important discussion about Oberlin's pressure-pit like tendencies. I read it at a point where my own investment in being busy took physical tolls on me and I was in the process of re-evaluating my priorities.
Not-so-secretly, I have been wanting to re-open Emily's discussion. I want prospective students to know that college, in general, is draining! It is imperative that you have an active plan for the holistic nature of caring for yourself. Even then, your plan can fail to meet your needs. In this moment, you join the rest of us who are drained, exhausted and looking for a break seemingly where there is none. My interest here is in working through some of Emily's thoughts and adding a few of my own as well.
So, What to Call It?
In thinking about possible origins of this culture Emily writes, "I'm not the first person to talk about this. Ma'ayan has attributed it to FOMO, the fear of missing out. Alison (another Oberlin Blogger) has called it "the romanticization of commitment" while Emily calls it a culture of busyness. I call it the pledge of ambitiousness.
I agree with all of these understandings. Certainly, there is an invisible force at work nudging everyone to go to every concert, lecture, performance, workshop, teach-in and everything else in between to feel like they are getting the full college experience. The fear of missing out is rooted in this irrationally rational belief that the day when all the knowledge is dropped or the most transformative moment of life itself will happen when you are not there.
When we hold on to that idea, then what Alison is talking about happens--we romanticize being overcommitted. We praise people for holding it together and getting no sleep but still being chipper. We celebrate ambition, or what would we could even call chronic overcommitment. When the foundation that holds up this culture of overcommitment, ambition and busyness begins to crack, we as a campus, as individuals, as communities, begin to see the devastating ways that we place unrealistic expectations on ourselves just to be busy and "productive."
The Limits of HHYB
A lot of the drain Obies experience stems from pure overcommitment--too many people are incredibly ambitious and motivated, far too talented and have peers, mentors and connections to other folks who are just as amazing as they are. What this means for time is a lot of interactions can become transactional if we are not careful. Instead of genuinely checking-in with one another, cancelling that meeting that really could wait or taking space for ourselves to feel/cry/yell/sleep/eat and what have you, we often reduce our interactions to the Hey, how are you?... Bye! or HHYB.
Emily summarizes well, "If you ask an Oberlin student how they're doing on an average day, they'll almost certainly tell you they're some combination of tired, stressed, and/or busy. I hear variations on, 'I'm tired,' 'I'm kinda stressed,' and 'I'm so busy,' that they barely even register as meaningful responses anymore." I think this kind of exchange is intended to be cordial but because of the incessant time press that is on everyone from students to faculty and staff, a lot of times this brief toss of words happens in moments of passing and becomes meaningless.
The HHYB is endemic. So many of us can only spare minutes to say hi to someone we have not seen in weeks. A lot of my peers are giving people major life updates and apologies for being missing in action on Facebook because there is no other convenient way to tell people. I have even told people they will not see me around unless it is at work or class or en route to those places. As a result, stress is a major issue on campus and after seven semesters of trying to get a handle on it, I still do not have the perfect solution for it.
New Possibilities & Old Responsibilities
I think it is important for this post to come to a close with a level of connectivity to even broader discussions. Mental health and wellness are significant, y'all. Not just in college but in life. Responsibilities do not necessarily go away but the means by which we get them accomplished and how we nurture ourselves can make all the difference.
There are multiple ways to "self-care" both alone and in community. I think that is a unique experience that receives a lot of influence from the interactions we all have with different people, spaces and stressors. As I write this post, I am thinking about all the other work I can (and should be) doing, but I also realize that writing is something of value to me in a transformative way that will give me the focus and relief to do my required work.
I encourage folks reading this to find the things worth saying no to--checking emails past a certain time, a meeting that can wait a few days, an event that maybe you do not actually need to co-coordinate--and start there.
Then, identify the things worth saying yes to--what sustains you? What makes you smile? What makes you laugh? Build these things into your day, into your week. If you need a reward system, create one. If you need to tell friends and family to give you a week to just sort through life, do that. We are all trying to figure it out and that is okay!