I’m 20 and no one has given me a concrete answer as to whether or not I should know who I am by now. Either way, I don’t. I thought I could figure it out by quitting the track team, joining an a cappella group, writing for every newspaper on campus, spending most of my waking hours in Butler, and more money on books than I can afford. These were my excessive and urgent attempts to create a person I could be proud and excited to call my own—my personal pursuit to make all the things I’ve done feel more substantial and all the things I haven’t, less monumental.
What came of these eclectic efforts? A weird sense of nostalgia every time I started to sweat or pick up speed on the Ruggles stairs, three rejections from the three a cappella groups I went out for, a no-go from other publications, long nights during which I isolated myself from life outside the library and a lot of yet-to-be-read books. Still, every second not spent trying to better myself by means of clubs and studying and sign-ups and applications felt like a second lost. Somehow, relaxation and satisfaction with whoever I was had become luxuries I was not allowed. Although there was still so much time to be had, I felt rushed by it and although I’d lived so little, I felt crushed as well.
Especially at a place where extraordinary is the norm, I felt like I should have done so much more by now. Unlike my classmates, I didn’t identify as a star athlete or math wiz, musical prodigy, or professional dancer, so I thought there was something wrong with me. I began to feel anxious and scared and like I was falling even farther behind everyone whenever I stopped to take a breath, so I didn’t.
It is dangerously easy to confuse the healthy process of self-enhancement with the perilous pursuit of perfection where one can simply disappear behind book-backs and Butler walls, constantly modifying and improving a product that never seems to be quite good enough. While I expected the workload and, by extension, the people here to be intense, I didn't think I’d fall into the whirlwind of pressures Columbia presents. I thought I’d be a spectator to the anxiety because I wasn't smart enough to be that stressed out and because I had other things to fall back on—things that could provide a comfortable barrier between me and all the qualifiers to which I couldn't lay claim. But when that barrier was broken and I began to lose the things that had so long defined me, I started to fixate on what I didn’t have and how to attain it.
It’s scary to feel lost in a place that demands we have it together at all times. Frightening feelings of insecurity and insignificance find a home in the seats next to us in Butler, staring us in the face and making us miss a time when we didn’t have to wonder whether we would accomplish the things we wanted to—we simply believed we would.
My goals have always been of the ambiguous sort, but until now, I had been following a clear-cut path that led me to assume specific aspirations and left me in no rush to figure out who I wanted to be. This path felt predetermined and these aspirations, less mine and more what I thought should be mine, but I’ve since begun to pave my own. It doesn't stretch far yet, but it’s going to lead me where I need to go and teach me what I need to know. First of which is how to love the ambiguity of life because it will no doubt be around for a while.
This is a time in our lives when nothing is certain or set in stone, but that doesn’t have to be as scary as it sounds. Endless options also means endless possibilities. With so much time left, virtually nothing is out of the question, so we shouldn’t rule ourselves out on account of self-doubt or disapproval. The world can be cruel already—there’s no need to be cruel to ourselves or to the people around us who are experiencing the same uncertainty. Though you may feel lost at times, know you are not alone. Anyways, sometimes the scratchy part of starting is the best part of all.
Nora May McSorley is a junior at Columbia College studying psychology. She can be reached at email@example.com, where she’d love to listen to what you have to say and help in whatever way she can. Distance May Vary runs alternate Wednesdays.
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