An anecdote about fear

Last September, I posted this status on Facebook:

What are some moments in your life that you look back on and think “Wow, I can’t believe I did that!”?

A few weeks ago—it feels like a lifetime ago! (before Reunions and graduation)—I traveled to Cancún with Elaine, Julian, and Andrea. It was really nice and, for the most part, a very relaxing trip. One of the non-relaxing things that we did was go to Cenote Tamcach-Ha, a water-filled sinkhole that features 5m and 10m diving platforms. I ended up jumping off of the 10m platform three times, which is really unexpected because I’m quite cautious by nature, and each time was terrifying in a different way. For reference, I’ve attached a video of the third jump below, trimmed to remove the 2+ minutes of stalling and hesitation before I actually gathered up the courage to jump.

 

 

Counterintuitively to me, the third jump was scarier than the first, because I knew what to expect—the moments of nothingness in free-fall were now known to me—and also because I put pressure on myself to resist my natural urge to curl up mid-air (which happened during my first jump, and which resulted in some very large bruising that only recently completely faded), since I knew what the consequences would be if I didn’t.

I still don’t really understand why I wanted to jump three times, but even in spite of the bruising, I’m glad that I did, because it allowed me to really notice and reflect on a few manifestations of my fear. I’ve been thinking about these jumps a lot recently, as I try and prepare for my upcoming travels and “adult life,” partially because I still can’t believe that it actually happened, but mostly to serve as a foil to the fear I feel around those areas of my future life.

In the past couple months, I’ve noticed myself feeling more scared about things that I feel like I wouldn’t have been scared of in the past. For instance, one thing that I’m really scared about right now is the 7-day silent meditation retreat that I’ll be attending in July. I find myself wondering if I can even do it (because of my scheduling constraints, I signed up for the advanced rather than introduction level retreat, and I’ve never meditated for that long before…) and feeling a lot of anxiety around the whole thing.

This doesn’t completely alleviate my anxiety, but when I remind myself of how I was able to overcome my fear and jump off of the 10m platform at Tamcach-Ha three separate times, I am also reminded that fear is designed to protect us, but it often holds us back. I knew I wasn’t going to die, but part of me was still convinced that I would, out of a self-preservation instinct.

I’m in a mindset right now where I want to optimize everything, and I think that part of that is that having (a perception of) control over the way things are going to turn out allows me to reduce feelings of uncertainty and makes me feel more safe. Although I feel frustrated at myself for having this urge (as well as many others, like suddenly caring a lot about conventional metrics of success), I acknowledge that my needs are behind it, and I’m trying to treat it as another opportunity for self-exploration and self-growth.   

P.S. After I posted this, I thought of this mantra from the P90X exercise videos I did in high school that that seems relevant: “Do your best, and forget the rest.”

Reflections on Princeton

For whatever reason, as more and more time elapses since commencement, I feel less and less motivated to write this blog post. (So I’ll focus more on content than on delivery haha.)

It’s so tempting to try to put my time at Princeton into a box by creating certain narratives about it. For instance, I definitely found myself getting sucked into the “best damn place of all” rhetoric during Reunions—and during graduation, feeling sentimental about/grateful for all of the relationships I cultivated (or wasn’t able to cultivate). But another challenge I have when I try to reflect on my undergrad is that it’s so difficult to separate everything that happened over the last five years from what constitutes my “Princeton experience.” In a way, it seems like everything that happened over the past five years needs to be understood against the broader context of Princeton. (Even my time away from school and the decisions that I made during my gap year were in reaction to it.)

Here are some of the categories that I feel like are significant in understanding the past 5 years and my thoughts on them.

Academics

One question that I’ve asked myself is “what did I actually learn?” And actually, I feel like I learned a lot. Although I’ve forgotten a good deal of content, I have learned a bunch of meta things and domain specific patterns, and know more about certain types of academic conventions. It’s weird though because getting better at things like “learning how to teach myself things” is a direct consequence of having poor instructors. I’m super grateful to have had the opportunity to learn about and be influenced by all sorts of disciplines, like architecture and acting.

“Regrets” / getting the “Princeton experience”

Regrets is in quotes because I’m trying not to believe in regret anymore. But there were many times at the end of my senior year when I felt some sadness about missed/forgone opportunities. (And actually right now, I’m realizing that those types of feelings come from wanting to optimize—having the “best” experience—which has been a toxic mindset for me.)

For instance, I never formed a close relationship to any of my computer science professors; I never went on a Broadway trip; I didn’t take a cool class that involved travel/once in a lifetime experiences; I never went inside every building on campus; I’ve never been to every eating club and co-op… These were some of the “regrets” that I fixated on but am no longer fixating on at this moment.

Disillusionment

I feel disillusioned about grades. What I came to realize was that there are specific and formulaic methods that people can use to be “successful” academically. For instance, going to office hours for help on a pset or assignment (or to develop a close relationship with your professor/TA), or making a specific and supported argument in a paper.

I also feel disillusioned to an extent about the extent to which the university supports its students. This was more personally salient to me during my first two years, but was reinforced later on through anecdotes and e.g., the Title IX protest.

Best damn place of all

I totally get this sentiment now. It’s easy for me to repress all the bad associations I have with this place because why would I want to relive those really hard times? And I do have so many positive memories associated with Princeton, and right now, I feel connected to other alums because of a weird sense of trauma bonding.

It was really hard

I honestly can’t believe/fathom how hard it was. I think it’s really easy for me to try to write off how hard it was after the fact, but I was under a lot of stress! I can point to my skin condition as an indicator of this. This past year, I’ve had more acne than I’ve had in years, and I’m pretty confident that it was my body’s outward manifestation of my internal stress. Looking back at the past couple years in particular, I am so amazed at how I was able to do all of the things that I did (which doesn’t even feel like that much, compared to other folks!!), and honestly I’m proud to have graduated.

Social

One of the best parts of Princeton was the people I met. (I would totally rewrite that to be less corny if I were focusing on delivery, btw.) I’m also really glad that I was able to experience the more conventional social scene this year, through attending and hosting pre-games and going to the street. Those were experiences that I wrote off my first three years, but I actually really appreciate them now. I still do wish there were more alternatives to those things, and more ways to meet new people on campus.

Growth

I am so grateful for all the ways I was able to change over the past five years. Many of those changes were not directly because of Princeton, but as I mentioned earlier, everything that happened can be seen as indirectly having happened because of Princeton. I do think that a lot of the challenging aspects of Princeton (e.g., architecturally enforced social isolation, geographic isolation, workload) did force me to grow, but I still don’t know if I agree with that type of parenting style.

Opportunities and privilege

Even though there were so many things that I didn’t take advantage of (see “Regrets”), I still had some really incredible opportunities that I probably wouldn’t have gotten elsewhere, especially getting funding to interview strangers and travel to China last summer. And to have gotten more resources and support to put on a solo show based on those experiences…wow… Also, I suspect that being a Princeton graduate will (unfairly) continue to afford me a bunch of privileges.

I understand what I didn’t before

When I started college, I remember struggling with trying not to care about grades, which seems like such an easy attitude now (maybe through exposure therapy). I think there are some lessons that are just too difficult to internalize until you go through experiences that force you to learn them. For instance, I didn’t understand until I started seriously thinking about life after graduation why people say that college is the best four years of your life.

If I had to do it all over again, would I?

This was a question on the senior survey that we had to fill out. I think that it would take a lot of conviction to say no, since that would be saying that you made the wrong decision and that you feel like the last several years of your life could have been better spent elsewhere. For me, there weren’t enough bad parts to make me say no. (Also, the teleological fallacy.)