Oberlin is a busy place. There is always art to see, music to listen to, ideas to digest, essays to read and write, and interesting people to meet. Often all these things are engaging and wonderful and I can feel my mind expanding. It’s rare to find a place so filled with people who always want to learn more and talk about everything. In some moments, however, I find the constant activity overwhelming, and I begin to feel weighed down.
I can think of one day in particular, during finals this past spring, when my stress felt like it was taking over. Working on the final paper for my History of Whiteness class, I was feeling completely lost. I loved the assignment to explore an aspect of my personal experience or family history with race through a historical, scholarly lens and knew it was an opportunity to learn a lot, but I was getting bogged down by the many complex directions I could go with it. Sitting in Mudd Library, I felt my frustration building up as my thinking got cloudier and I convinced myself I would never be able to finish the paper. My mind kept repeating all the other things I also needed to be doing, other finals I hadn’t even started, the art shows and performances I was missing, the friends I wanted to see before leaving for the summer. Activities that should have been interesting or fun were becoming part of a dreaded to-do list.
I decided to give myself a break, so I stepped outside for a walk. Just a few minutes in, I heard thunder rumbling closer and felt a rain drop. As I considered whether or not to turn back I recognized Jacque, an Oberlin resident who has studied Buddhism and leads meditations for the Oberlin Meditators, a student organization I’m a part of, walking his dog toward me. We stopped to talk and when he asked me how I was doing I found myself explaining my struggle to write this paper.
As we began walking together he questioned me about the paper, probing at the foundations of what I wanted to say. We discussed the ways we had learned about race and some of the stereotypes and lessons we felt still lodged in us today. He seemed to be entirely focused on our conversation, and by giving me his full attention he also drew me in to the present. Feeling comfortable with silence, I allowed myself the space to choose the words I really wanted, to give the topic the gravity and honesty it deserved. I realized that in all my stress over writing the paper I had forgotten what I wanted to get out of the assignment.
Soon after Jacque and I parted ways I came upon my good friend Katie sitting on a curb with an umbrella, watching the storm. I plopped down beside her and we sat together under what was becoming a torrential downpour. Slipping my sandals off, I stuck my feet in a puddle. Feeling my toes on cool concrete and water dripping through my clothes along my skin I realized that the cloudiness in my head had lifted.
Oberlin can be an exciting atmosphere of learning, but there are ways that its intensity— the constant to-do list, the endless readings for class, the crowds of interesting people—can begin to stifle learning. The push to constantly do, seek, and know more stresses us out. Over my time at school, I have learned the value of quiet, of finding people who will sit outside and watch a thunderstorm with me during finals; I’ve learned that taking a break from thinking so hard to just feel for a moment is what makes me happiest at Oberlin.