When Harvard came out with its Fall 2020 plans on July 6th (I can’t believe it’s already been two weeks since then!), it hit me that this was going to be my final year of college.
Up until that point, stay-at-home life had really messed with my sense of time. Sometimes, it felt like I was literally reliving my own past, staying with my parents in my childhood home. Sometimes, it felt as though quarantine life was going to continue forever, swallowing up any semblance of future progress. Other times, it felt like I’d been robbed of the present and only allowed to have a past and future while being stuck in a purgatory that was neither. Days turned into weeks turned into months… you know how it is.
My summer actually started out really ambitiously. After a few weeks of recovery from finals, I was going to get started on my future planning—thinking about grad school, fellowships etc. I was going to start making art, dedicating a few hours each day to drawing, painting, and writing. I was also going to spend much quality time with my parents and enjoy what could be my last summer in the Pacific Northwest (Seattle summers are the best in the world, and you can’t convince me otherwise). All of those plans fell through the cracks, though, and I now find myself tumbling into the end of summer without having accomplished anything much at all.
I know, I know, I shouldn’t blame myself for being “unproductive.” The present conditions are so brutal that it’d be laughable for me to find any sense of normalcy in the midst of it all. In fact, it’s probably really unhealthy and even politically harmful to try to normalize all the social injustices that have surfaced as an international public health crisis in the past 5 months. Yet I can’t help but feel like so much life, so much of my youth is escaping my grasp… But forcibly pausing my life like this also gave me a lot of time to think and reflect, and although I haven’t done future planning, haven’t made art, haven’t healed with my family, and haven’t nourished my mind much, I feel like the only way to do justice to the incredible amount of loss that the world has endured is to do all those things later but more thoughtfully and reflectively.
In that spirit, here are a few of my reflections that I hope to take into the final year of my childhood (cue the dramatic music).
The myth of personal growth and being an Avatar instead
The dominant sensation of the past three years of college has been growing pains. At college, I’ve been pushed to my intellectual and spiritual limits and have grown so rapidly that every time I come back home, my family’s shocked by how much I’ve changed. As a young adult, I’m finally starting to become really, genuinely proud of and happy about the person I am and the person I’m becoming. But alas, all of that rapid growth came to a halt back in March when—within a day—I was back to sleeping in my childhood bed and studying at my childhood desk. Soon enough, I was also starting to feel and think the same ways as I had in high school, as if I had reverted back into my teenage self as a 21-year-old. I spent a long time resenting this “devolution” into my childhood. What was the point of three years of painful growth if all it took was a few months to be drowning once again in my teenage insecurities? Did I even grow or progress at all if none of those changes turned out to be permanent?
Now, I’m at peace with the return of my old self. When placed under the same conditions—living with the same people, being in the same neighborhood—of course I would feel, act, and react in the same ways! Just because my old self has resurfaced doesn’t mean that I haven’t grown. It just means that my life stages aren’t one-and-done—they are constantly enacted and reenacted in my present moment. But I think that far from being confining, this idea is really empowering!
Like most of you, I’ve spent my quarantine watching Avatar: The Last Airbender (and yes, it truly is the best show ever—please go watch if you haven’t!), so I’m processing this new realization through the analogy of ~being an Avatar~. In the show, the Avatar is reincarnated at the end of each life cycle, but each incarnation also has within them the spirit of all their past lives. When they tap into the ~Avatar state~, the forces of all the previous Avatars speak and act through them. I’m definitely not the last airbender, but maybe I’m a lot like the Avatar in the ways that my past selves are always present within me, and at different points of my life, they recede or resurface.
As I move onto the next stages of my life, everything that I’ve ever been will always be within me—nothing will be lost.
The instability of the future and the stability of the present
If there’s anything this crisis has taught us, it’s that the universe is radically indifferent to our fate and that no future is guaranteed. Even planning for a career right now seems futile and laughable—who knows what the state of the economy will be when I graduate? What if the world goes up in flames again?
Back in May, I got a free meditation app subscription through the Harvard Undergraduate Council, and while I don’t know much about the history or practice of meditation, it has been teaching me a lot about how to occupy the present. I’ve spent so many of my quarantine days in my head, lost deep in my abstract thoughts, but meditation has injected into my life a healthy dose of attention to my body and my surroundings. It gives me the daily reminder that I am here, within the four walls of my house, even as the world whirls around me. Even when my thoughts orbit in the empty space above my head, my body is grounded, and my feet are attached to the floor. Applying this to my anxieties of an unknown future, I guess meditation has taught me that future is unstable, but there’s a comforting solidity and stability in the present.
It may be true that my senior year will turn out to be nothing like what I’m expecting, and it may be true that the universe will take me in countless unforeseen directions. But I know that the person that I am—here and now—is more than capable of finding joy and living joyously in whatever storm I’m thrown into. Also, the more I find stability in the present, the more exciting the unknown has become! Instead of securitizing against the unknown future, I must have faith in myself and my ability to find joy in the circumstances I’m given.
The distinction between caring and coping
“Self-care” is a term that I throw around probably all too casually, as if “do self-care!” is some truism and everyone knows what it means. But what does this “care” look like? Is it an activity we do or is it a broad orientation to the world? Also, what does the “self” mean in “self-care?” Why can’t caring for others also be a way to care for ourselves sometimes? This is all to say, so many questions came up about self-care during the course of quarantine.
Quarantine life—in which self-care is made all the more important because it’s the only form of care that’s available at all—has left me in utter confusion of what it means to care and how I can do it. I’ve realized that during the past several years, I had been conflating Caring with Coping. At school, everything I purportedly did for “self-care” (like face masks, lighting candles, taking long walks) was actually just done for the sake of being more productive later (finishing my paper with a face mask on, lighting candles while catching up on a lecture, taking long walks thinking about what I had to get done the next day). I wasn’t truly caring for myself unconditionally. I was merely coping. I’m still thinking through what unconditional self-care and self-love means, but I now have a better understanding of what it’s not.
It’s always been a little scary to think about senior year and post-grad life, but everything that’s been going on in the external world as well as the whirlwinds of my interiority have clarified a lot of things. I want to dedicate the rest of my life to advancing justice. I want to always seek out new experiences and learn new things while also engaging with history and holding onto my past. I want to be grounded and sure of myself when I face the terrifying abyss of a future unknown. And most of all, I want to live joyously, caring for myself and others.