I had just returned home for winter break and was ready to relax, until I began to receive threatening emails. “Apply to a summer internship!” one read. “Grant applications are due in a week!” another cheered. I sighed. The summer madness had begun. Honestly, why did summer matter anyways? I was a first year, after all.
After about a day of what I thought was meaningful self-reflection, I sat with my parents at dinner and announced my plan. “I have decided that my happiness needs to come from myself. I am going to travel through Europe alone, and be completely self sustainable. I will plan and pay for everything.” My mother looked up at me, and paused. I held my breath. “You’ll be careful? And you’ll fully pay?” I nodded. “OK,” she said. “It’ll teach you a lot of responsibility anyways.” I was thrilled: A major roadblock had suddenly disappeared. I began to plan with a frenzy, creating travel accounts online where I could find work at hostels, churches, English-speaking camps and more. I found that these places often offered food and shelter in exchange for work, so I’d only need to pay for my flight. This was looking more affordable than I had thought.
With a desire to get my plans settled quickly, I signed up to work at a meditation center. It was perfect — near the downtown of a safe city, boasted favorable reviews from previous workers and had a reasonable work schedule. After a few days of looking at the website, I signed up to work for a month. I called the manager over Skype, filled out a couple of forms and suddenly? I had a job. Friends around me were stressed out over applying for internships, finding professors to do research with and looking up programs for study abroad. Talk swirled around about who was doing what (“Did you hear that she’s working for Twitter, and got the job in October?”) but throughout it all, I remained calm. I had my summer plans worked out. And on top of that, I was avoiding a pre-professional summer.
How foolish I was! After filling out the forms and learning the name of the center, my mom suggested that I Google them as a background check of sorts. I stared at the screen in shock. The meditation center practiced a breakaway sect of Buddhism, one that didn’t believe in the Dalai Lama and had potential violent tendencies. I was alarmed but kept searching further, hoping that my summer plans wouldn’t fall apart. No luck. It turns out that there was also a website where people wrote about their negative experiences with this center, some with stories of physical danger. I realized that I had almost gone to work for a potentially dangerous, radical organization.
I immediately sprung into action, emailing the manager to explain that I had a conflict and could no longer work at the center, to which she responded graciously. After I made sure that I had no remaining ties to the center, I sat in shock. How did this happen? How could I have been so careless?
I realized why. I thought I was somehow better than my peers by refusing to have a stereotypical summer, but we all were frantically planning our summers for the same reason: a fear of uncertainty. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that this fear of uncertainty pervades throughout many decisions made in college. We’re afraid of not having plans for the summer, afraid of taking classes where we don’t know how well we’ll do, afraid of trying new activities where we might not be the best, afraid of outcomes that are a big question mark rather than clear answers. And frankly, I’m no better. I was so afraid of uncertainty with my summer plans that I almost placed myself in physical danger.
I may not have ended up working for a religious organization, but I joined another here at Yale: the religion of certainty. It makes sense that we are this way. People who plan extensively and organize their lives tend to be conventionally successful — but we must change. We can’t be afraid of uncertainty in our lives, and not merely to avoid foolish mistakes like mine. It’s to ensure that we have a meaningful impact in the world. If we’re so afraid of uncertainty — afraid that if we don’t follow the safe, traditional money-making paths to success, then we won’t ever be successful — then we’ll never challenge ourselves to take steps to actualize our radical ideas. We’re given an education that equips us to disturb the status quo and make the world better. It would be a pity to waste it.
Rabhya Mehrotra is a first year in Pauli Murray College. Her column runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .