Gap years are tan lines and beaming smiles. They are backpacks, plane tickets and photos of kids from remote villages. They are museum visits, stories told at campfires and the unfamiliar sounds of new languages. They allow us to escape the confines of the familiar and let out our teenage restlessness.
When it was time to accept my offer of admission to Yale, I opened the website and looked over the options. I knew what I was going to press: “Postpone matriculation.” What for? A little red book with a white cross on the cover.
By then, I had spent nine years in Switzerland. It was my second home, and I had already completed most of the citizenship requirements — the only thing I needed was time. After several years of living under the suffocating structure of boarding school days, the idea of spending a few months waking up to postcard-worthy vistas, working at ski resorts and traveling around picturesque European towns seemed unbelievably freeing. At the end of it all, I would raise my hand, confidently pronounce “Je promets!” and leave the Toblerone land as its proud citizen. An idyllic image. My mouse hovered over the options one last time. Click.
We love the freedom of choice. We despise running during P.E. but will gladly go out for a refreshing evening jog. We get mad when our mothers tell us to wash the dishes despite the fact that we were about to do it anyway. It is the knowledge that we can always cancel our dinner date — but we won’t, because we already said yes — that makes it worth it. We want to believe that we control our environment, we want to see things go according to our plan; the ability to choose dictates whether we view our days as a tedium of chores and obligations or steps toward happiness and self-improvement.
So when the Swiss immigration centre refused to prolong my visa, preventing me from leaving the country while they reconsidered their decision, I found myself in an unbearable limbo of “What now?”. A single letter barred me from getting a job and travelling. It shattered the perfect image of the months ahead, and robbed me of that satisfaction of choice. It suspended my dream of a little red book with a white cross on the cover.
The weeks turned into a monotonous eon of uncertainty. I was waiting for a train to my imagined gap year experience, a train that, for all I knew, could never arrive. I watched other trains race past the platform — friends starting their college journeys, families going on holidays — and cursed the world for not handing me a ticket.
For the first time, I felt immured by the silence of small towns. The towering walls of stone, once calling for me to reach their peaks, now only seemed to mock me and my isolation. In this majestic vastness of hills and valleys, I felt soul-crushingly alone.
But above all, I felt guilty. Guilty for leading a lifestyle many dream of, for watching the rays of the morning sun slowly rise over the mountains and feeling like it wasn’t enough for me or my happiness. I felt guilty for being ungrateful, for feeling like the world’s luckiest prisoner in the world’s most beautiful prison. Most of all, I felt guilty for not being able to fill every hour of my day with “life-changing experiences,” guilty for doing absolutely nothing.
We spent our high school years filling our calendars — debates, tournaments, interviews merged into a blur. Doing nothing would be admitting defeat, succumbing to the monster that is mediocrity. A second wasted? An opportunity missed. It could have contributed to another line on the resume, another award, another internship. Our schedules were fuel to the fire of our ambition, and a single moment’s respite would put it out.
My paralysis lasted a few weeks. At first, I tried to push it away. Then I let it consume me, and found something I didn’t expect: It didn’t make me lose momentum. It simply gave me time to reflect: What was it that I really wanted? From myself, from my relationships, from that chaotic schedule? The letter removed my freedom of choice to leave, but granted me the freedom of choice to do; being responsible for every second of my day filled me with a novel confidence. I learned a language, wrote letters to friends and strangers and for the first time in years, I sat still. New friends and experiences finally felt entirely my own. I was an actor taking a shot at a role in the mysterious theatre of the real world. Suddenly, being a 19-year-old living alone in a tiny village at the foot of a mountain was the life-changing experience I had sought all along.
I clutch my little red book with the white cross on it and listen to the rustle of its pages. It is the result of a three-year wait and a mountain of paperwork. But most of all, it is the result of life’s unpredictability, the so very cliché what-doesn’t-kill-you-makes-you-stronger experience. It is the result of finally learning to sit still so that we can start again.
I am grateful that my grandiose plans, with their plane tickets and tan lines and backpacks, fell through. To really enjoy doing something, you must first do nothing.
Lisa Peppi is a first year in Silliman College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .