BESSLER: The obstacles are the path

Freshman Voices

I’ve gotten my fair share of guidance over the last 18 years. But nothing compares to the tsunami of life advice that has come my way this summer, leaving in its wake scattered remnants of my once self-assured existence, along with a colossal pile of well-wishing graduation cards.

I should have paid more attention to the warning signs of the approaching storm.

Two months ago, I walked into a Barnes & Noble and found that the “New in Fiction” section had been replaced by a selection of college advice books. “The Naked Roommate,” apparently the No. 1 guide for freshmen, promised tips on everything from navigating the “hookup scene” to “avoiding the freshman 15.” I eyed the book suspiciously and moved on.

A month later, I started to notice a change in conversations I had with my parents. Rather than changing topics naturally, they began applying everything we talked about to some all-encompassing moral. A request to pass the salt became a metaphor for being the change you wish to see in the world. Choosing between skim milk and 2 percent turned into a “Walden”-esque lecture on living deliberately.

This phenomenon escalated until every conversation ended with what sounded to me like the concluding sentence of an overpriced self-improvement manual.

By August, it wasn’t just my parents who had gone into advice-overdrive. Once anyone learned I was heading off to college, the floodgates opened, prompting another person’s two cents on “surviving” freshman year.

Advice was often contradictory. My boss cautioned that I should always put studying first. My neighbor took a different approach, winking at me and whispering, “Don’t go behaving yourself all the time!” A family friend encouraged me to “screw grades” and join as many extracurriculars as I could manage. First and foremost, an a cappella group.

The advice was helpful, don’t get me wrong. But as each new adult came forward with new suggestions as to how I should live out my college years, I started to get more and more worried I wouldn’t do things the “right” way.

Unfortunately, the worst was yet to come. None of these exhortations could have prepared me for the bloodbath of gentle guidance and poorly masked counseling that was my family vacation.

My parents and I traveled to Slovenia, where my mom’s ancestors are from. I quickly found out that there are few worse places to be, a week before heading off to college, than hiking up a mountain with two parents eager to hand off their last great words of wisdom. Subjects ranged from choosing healthy meals to coping with failure.

It all culminated when my mom cornered me at a large rock at a turn in the trail. She’d recently heard about a Slovenian writer who wrote her children at her death, “People think of obstacles as getting in your way in the path of life. But, in fact, the obstacles are the path.”

Needless to say, “The Obstacles Are The Path” became my parents’ mantra for the entire vacation. Plane delayed? Menu all in Slovene? Over 100 degrees and no air conditioning? The obstacles are the path. It was the kind of phrase that screamed to be hand-embroidered on a tasseled throw pillow.

At the end of our hike, I turned to my parents and asked why they thought I needed so much advice. I’d always been pretty independent, and my parents had never worried about me finding friends or setting my own schedule.

“Well,” my dad responded, “we need to instill in you all of our experience before your college friends start corrupting you!” Maybe a fair point.

When I noted all the conflicting advice I’d received, my dad whipped out an F. Scott Fitzgerald quote: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” An eye-roll seemed the only appropriate response.

I’ve since realized that advice is only useful if taken in moderation; otherwise I become overwhelmed. Besides, it’s impossible to completely prepare for the unknown. A chance encounter might change my college experience entirely. In other words, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, the obstacles are most definitely the path.

I need advice, yes, and judging by the size of the Blue Book, advice from upperclassmen is always welcome. But Googling “tips for freshman year” (yes, I’ve been there) is not going to ensure I have a good time at Yale. No amount of advice can change the fact that this path is mine. Here’s to hoping it’s a trek worth taking.

Abigail Bessler is a freshman in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact her at abigail.bessler@yale.edu.

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