This semester, in my Astronomy class, I learned that electrons will naturally occupy the lowest energy level of their atom. If an electron wants to jump up to a higher energy level, it will have to take in a unit of light energy called a photon. It’s much easier for it to release that energy and fall to the lowest energy level possible. The same principle applies to lots of other things, including humans: we like to choose the path of least resistance. That’s why I decided to take said Astronomy class pass/fail.
Science has never been my strong suit, especially when you combine it with math. Even the fact that the class was labeled as being in the Physics department put me off, but I decided to try something new (and fulfill my QR requirement). Luckily for me, that risk paid off, and I really began to enjoy learning the material. I knew, though, that I wasn’t going to be able to get a grade good enough to satisfy the expectations I set for myself. That fact alone made the readings, homework, and all the time I spent studying stressful and anxiety-inducing. Instead of enjoying learning about literally some of the coolest science the universe has to offer, I was preoccupied with my grades on the tests irreparably scarring my GPA.
I knew of the concept of pass/fail, but I had never thought of it as an option for me. For years, I’d been totally invested in making perfect grades, so the possibility of not being able to do that really terrified me. After I discussed it with my friends and my professor, though, I knew it was the right choice.
Ever since then, I continue to tell people that pass/fail set me free. It’s kind of a joke, but I mean it when I say that my life is less stressful without having to worry about my Astronomy grade (which, ironically, has gone up now that I actually enjoy learning the material). It’s so nice to be able to sit in class and take in the lectures without worrying about holding on to every little piece of information. I actually really like doing the math on homework assignments, not to get it all right, but just to see if I can. This is the first learning experience I’ve had in a long time that’s genuinely driven by me being eager to learn.
I started to think that maybe this great feeling—that a weight had been lifted off my shoulders—could repeat itself if I did what was, surprisingly, the easiest thing: letting go.
As humans, our attachments are surprisingly hard to dismiss, even if they’re purely mental. Deciding to pass/fail Astronomy, for example, took lots of time, worrying, and distress. Nowadays, though, I don’t even think of how difficult the decision was. I just think of how glad I am to have made it.
I knew I had to try to apply this idea of setting myself free to other areas of my life. One such problem was that I felt so overwhelmed by all my responsibilities in class and extracurriculars that I worried I couldn’t do any of them well. I was so upset even at the prospect of letting people down that I let those hypotheticals cover up the enjoyment I was getting out of the activities. The solution to this one was simple: lessen the workload. And I did! I quit one of the clubs I was (minimally) involved in last year; in other words, I just stopped attending meetings when they started up in September. I wasn’t totally attached to the group, and I felt like I had a way to access what I liked about it in other ways, so it was an easy decision.
Another thing I made easier on myself was giving myself breaks from campus. Kenyon does an excellent job of reinforcing the attitude that the most stress possible is the best kind of work, but this year was the breaking point for me and that idea. Most days, I couldn’t wait for the next chance to get off campus, either to the family farm for the weekend or all the way home for fall break. Although I looked forward to seeing my family and friends, I felt guilty that I couldn’t cope with the purely geographical pressures of being on campus. Once I made it home, though, giving myself that break really revived me—taking time away from school made it possible for me to get back to work.
The hardest of these decisions, though, are the ones that involve other people. Sometimes, doing what’s best for you means doing something that may hurt other people. It’s really difficult to justify that to yourself, though, when you’ve gotten into a pattern of putting others’ feelings above your own. That realization is what pushed me to put myself first. Last year, so many things about my group of friends and the way we spent time together really bothered me. I felt like who I was as a person, and what I valued, was being overshadowed by gossip and drama. Although I felt like I was doing my best to be a good friend, I realized after a long time that I wasn’t getting the same effort back.
People always say that your friend groups will change after freshman year, and in my case, they were right. I became a lot closer to the older girls in my sorority, many of whom I see as role models for how to be a gracious, compassionate friend while maintaining personal integrity. I came into leadership roles in a few of my organizations, which really helped to tether me to the peers that benefitted from my work. I spent my weekends going to parties with my friends for the sole purpose of dancing and having a good time. That, in particular, really shed a new light on how nice it is to be with people who aren’t constantly turning their heads to look for someone to hook up with. Simply put, I began to enjoy my social life much more.
All this isn’t to say that I’ve found the magic bullet for fixing everything wrong with my life, or anyone else’s. I think, though, that it’s important to realize that putting yourself first can really make a significant change. I’ve always been so caught up in what other people will think of me, but if I’m not happy with myself either, then what’s the point? Although the decisions I made largely involved losing an aspect of my life, I feel like that weight off my shoulders ultimately set me free.