Yalie small talk seems to follow trends depending on where we are in the school year. The current default question is “What did you do over break?” The more I listen to people’s responses, the more my suspicions are confirmed: we didn’t actually take a break. I know I didn’t. Such is the life of a Yalie.
I used to be able to relax, back when I was lucky enough to live in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere. An opportunity desert is the ideal habitat for a high school try-hard to grow up in; at some point, there is nothing left you can possibly do. There are no missed chances left to worry about.
Yet this time, the enduring arms of the Rocky Mountain range couldn’t protect me from fears of falling behind. In Yale’s world, I fill up my Google Calendar with extracurriculars and jobs I got from cold emails, build immaculate spreadsheets containing hundreds of assignments, and sleep only six hours for maximum efficiency. A taste of life in Yale’s bustling hive has made me an opportunity glutton. So when I looked out at the majestic sagebrush-spotted plains, I could no longer find tranquility. I saw nothing but a barren Wyoming desert, starving for productivity.
While my friends and family slept, I stayed up late, applying for summer programs and working on internships. When I wasn’t working, I felt guilty. I assigned myself readings, cleaned and reorganized everything, and devised methodical plans to maximize time with loved ones. I was restless.
This anxious pattern persisted up until the last night of break. I was staying with my friend Jess, who’s obsessed with travel and utilitarianism. We gathered with our friends around the old piano in her living room and listened to Elijah enthusiastically play and sing Billy Joel songs. While everyone else laughed and talked, I was nervously checking flights and road closures from the wintery nightmare brewing outside. What if I miss my classes? How do I carry three bags and a cat through the New York Subway System? Why did my seminar professor already send out readings?
I was totally lost in the worries swirling around in my head, when a whimsical piano riff pulled me back into the warm house, safe from the storm. I looked up from my emails to see Jess’s smile as Elijah sang the opening line of “Vienna.” I never understood why it was her favorite. But sitting inches away from people I loved, hours before I had to journey 1,400 miles away,, listening to Elijah scream the lyrics about what little time is left in youth, the song finally made sense. Tomorrow, I would return to the Yale world, where I wouldn’t be able to “afford to lose a day or two.” But not tonight.
Part of me is still frozen in that moment. Stuck picturing the steadfast river that flows through my hometown. Stuck missing my family and friends and thinking about the life I could have had if things had gone differently. Stuck listening to that wretched song, hoping to find the part of me I lost between Wyoming and New Haven.
I’ve learned more about opportunity cost in the melancholy hours spent crying to “Vienna” than in the months invested in Econ 115. I’m here, I’ve gotten everything I thought I wanted, but I’m still afraid. I’m afraid of losing myself. I’m afraid of losing the people I care about. I’m afraid I’m going to wake up one day and realize I’ve become nothing but a wrinkly flesh bag of knowledge, achievements and emptiness that never went away.
We’re so worried about getting into the Yaw School, landing that consulting job, or whatever our future holds that we forget we have free will. You “can’t” sit with a stranger in the dining hall because it would be weird. You “can’t” play that instrument because it’s been a while. You “can’t” hop on a bus to some random New England town because exploring won’t get you an A on that p-set. So we work, even when it feels more draining than fulfilling, without stopping to ask ourselves if our big Yale dreams are going to be enough.
So instead of spending break working two jobs, getting ahead on readings for the semester, and being afraid we aren’t doing enough, we should learn how to take a break.
This spring, I’m going to Vienna to sleep in hostels and eat sourdough with Jess. How about you?
FAITH DUNCAN is a first year in Saybrook College. Her fortnightly column, “Reframing,” emphasizes looking into the frameworks of norms, institutions, and mindsets that shape life at Yale. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.