The semester has barely begun. Final schedules have not yet been signed. But already, my sights are aimed at what some might the call the “finish line”: those hectic few weeks at the end of term. It may seem premature to think about reading period and exam week so obscenely early, but I’m already there. I see a mirage of petting zoos and panic attacks on the horizon.
This interest in finals week is grounded in concern. Reading period and exam week show the campus in a state of stark contradiction. In libraries across Yale, there will be extreme stress: a universal phenomenon. It’s everywhere. Students pull all-nighters and people push themselves — their bodies and their intellectual and emotional capacities—to the brink.
But the other part of Yale’s libraries in reading week — in direct apposition with the first—will be a tableau of self-care culture. The calendar of study breaks, no-stress zones and self-styled “comforting events” would run inches longer than the allotted space for this column. Residential colleges order mountains of junk food. Student groups provide coloring books and screen Disney films. Ezra Stiles even sets up a petting zoo.
Outside commentators and elements within Yale’s student body alike have derided this “safe-space” culture as an infantilizing frivolity. They view it as further confirmation of what they see as the moral decline and constitutional weakness of the American intelligentsia, claiming that today’s college students lack backbone. If only they’d just buckle up, the anti-PC crowd likes to say.
Yale’s pseudo-therapeutic culture is a serious problem, but it is by no means the reflection of weakness that conservatives claim. Yale’s culture of “self-care,” viciously and unfairly disparaged, should be understood as constituting one part of a complicated whole. The study breaks and petting zoos go hand in hand with extreme stress. But I propose a broader parallel: Many if not most students at Yale live between extremes of numbing comfort and total exhaustion. The student at the petting zoo will have spent countless nights of her term completing internship applications, worrying how she will spend her summer. The student who goes to the coloring book study break is taking five classes and working two jobs — struggling to complete a major that does not interest him. This pseudo-therapy is a natural — although perhaps not ideal — response to the pressure of our deeply uncertain futures.
There is a real sense of dread on this campus whenever we catch ourselves talking about the future. This dread is palpable in classrooms and in dining halls. It appears uninvited in conversation. It should not be confused with indecision, or lack of commitment, or some kind of post-teenage angst. As we watch traditional career trajectories — law, journalism, academia, medicine, applied science — undergo rapid and destabilizing changes, students are left with significant doubts about the possibility of realizing their dreams.
This sense of dread can be observed across Yale. The early adoption of a Protestant work ethic reinforces in its adopter the validity of the meritocracy myth. The more obstacles that are placed in front of the hard-working Yalie, the more she will be convinced that her solution is to simply work harder. To be better.
So, in pursuit of prizes that seem increasingly elusive, students push themselves harder and faster, faster and harder. Inevitably, we all crash — although these crashes can take drastically different forms. For some students it simply means returning home for break intellectually exhausted. For others, it has far more serious consequences, resulting in major academic and personal disruptions.
When viewed in the face of such pressures — a changing and alienating economy, a success-bound culture, a lack of personal intimacy and reluctance to talk about insecurity — the petting zoos and board games are mere crumbs from the proverbial banquet. They do nothing to address the origins of students’ entirely reasonable anxieties and fears. It is a half-hearted attempt to mitigate the extremities of our uncertain world.
But how do we mitigate these uncertainties? The answer depends on the person. For some, the best response to uncertainty may come from religious observance. For others, it may come from political ideology. Others still may derive strength from therapy or counseling. But I propose friendship as one of the strongest bulwarks. Strong friendships can endure trials. Friendship will bring us through the fire more than breakfast for dinner ever could.
gabriel groz is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .