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The Dartmouth
April 20, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Reflection: Why Do We Swim Against the Current?

On the eve of her 21st birthday, one writer explores her expectations of perfection and how she has grappled with a desire to not let go.

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Recently, I’ve been trying to work on letting go. Perhaps not out of character for me, I’ve spent the past year grappling with lots of the big, existential questions of life — one of which has centered around what it means to let go of past notions of perfection. As I head into my 21st birthday this Friday, I would like to be more intentional with blurring the lines between who I am and who I expected myself to be. I hope to lean into the “imperfections,” to work on not being so hard on myself when I don’t meet my high expectations, for life goes on regardless.

I spent 20 living slowly, for my introduction to grief has helped me to understand that it is not sustainable to keep living on the brink of exhaustion. I’ve become more in tune with the fragility of the world around me, understanding that we will forever find ourselves in the ebb and flow of change. I’ve tried to make my peace with the immovable force of change, with the fact that nothing in our lives will stay the same forever, from the color of the leaves to the statuses of who we call our friends or family. In the process of coming to terms with it all, I’ve also tried to be kinder to myself, to understand that it is okay to appreciate each day for what it is before moving on to the next, to take it one day at a time. 

I wasn’t always like this. Those who knew me in high school can attest that there was never a moment where I wasn’t running from one thing to the next. I rarely took a beat to rest, instead powering through my academics, clubs and competitions on a level that leaves me tired just thinking about it. And I did it all with a smile on my face. 

Looking back, I had a misguided belief that if I worked hard enough and was optimistic enough, then everything would fall into place. I would succeed in whatever I wanted to do, earn whatever grade that I wanted to earn and all would be well in the world. I knew it wouldn’t happen without putting in the work, which often meant taking the harder way through, the road less traveled as Frost would say. Instead it often felt like walking through a jungle with a machete in hand. But I had no reason to doubt this system, for it had never failed me. I was able to get through it all with a level of grace and kindness that I admire looking back. 

But I got addicted to this fact-paced, unsustainable version of life, this deep rooted need to fill up my free time and be pushed to the very edge. No one warns you that perfectionism is addictive, that much like gambling, you feel a rush each time you “win” and are awarded with accolades and praised for doing the impossible.

One of the greatest lessons that I have learned during my time at Dartmouth stems not from the classroom, but rather from boys who spend many hours in a frat basement. As an underclassman, I did my best to transfer the breakneck lifestyle I had in high school to my new routine in college, often signing up for an ambitious trio of classes and signing up for endless extracurricular experiences. I would do my best to not miss anything, not a single party or an interesting lecture outside of class. Once again, I was seemingly doing it all. 

But as we all know, the intensity of Dartmouth is unlike anything else. I slowly began slipping, unable to perform at my very best like I used to. I lived my weeks just trying to get through. I would do my best to stronghold my schedule, to find time where there was none to make it all happen, and ultimately ended up half-assing everything I was trying to do because I simply did not have the time and energy to do so. 

I needed to stop trying to play God. I should have realized early on that it isn’t sustainable to force things to happen, that things will be what they will be. Instead, I learned that lesson from watching my boyfriend and his friends go about their time at Dartmouth. They seemed to live their lives the complete opposite way to mine, in a way that was actually more healthy. Heinous pong games withstanding, they seemed to value their own wellbeing way more than I ever did. 

When I end the term burnt out from signing up for three difficult classes that all seemed “interesting,” they maintain their wellness by balancing out their schedules with one hard class and two easier ones, “layups” as we call them. While I have various club meetings or bookmarked guest lectures for each night of the week, they spend that time together at the gym or watching TV, inadvertently giving themselves time to breathe and recuperate. While I make plans for every meal of the week, eating with a number of friends to catch up and chat for hours, they limit themselves, being okay with either eating alone or simply grabbing food with the boys. By choosing only a few things and dedicating themselves to them, they seemed more successful and happy.

Without meaning to, the boys have taught me what it means to put myself first, to give myself the time and ability to move forward with confidence instead of scrambling to keep up. They’ve shown me that I don’t need to do it all, that slowing down and spending quality time with what I truly care about is actually more of an act of love. They’ve sparked a question that I have been mulling in my head for the past few months — a question of what it means to live a fulfilling life. Is it the one where you are constantly trying to swim against the current? To make things harder for yourself to prove something to the world, or even for the sake of just doing so? Or is a life of love one where you lean into the natural flow of things, having set the boundaries that give you the ability to show up completely for those that you care for? 

For my 21st, I hope to spend more time doing the latter, to not fight against the current and force things to play out the way I want them to. For I’ve learned, spoiler alert, that it doesn't work that way. I want to take some time to just let the current sweep me away, to bump into a host of wonderful people, places and experiences along the way. For my birthday, I want to gift myself a life that resembles those of the boys, one that is easier, sillier, more lighthearted but no less loving.