T his Thanksgiving , my sister was back from her first semester of college, already a little bit overwhelmed. She told me she probably wouldn’t be able to deal with all of her secondary (i.e. social) obligations until Dec. 20, as that’s the day of her last exam. I’m all too familiar with this mentality.
Ever since I’ve been in charge of my own schedule, I’ve felt the constant pressure of deadlines. In some ways, it’s natural. From an early age, we’re trained to be aware of timelines and due dates. That’s part of what it means to be organized — to understand where you are in relation to the next point in time after which “x” thing will be Too Late.
In high school, it was violin recitals, tests and college applications. In college, it’s papers, midterms, internship applications ... columns. I anticipate deadlines with a strange mixture of impatience and dread. I have so much to do before the next one arrives, but after that, I’ll be free! At last, I’ll be able to relax, do something for fun.
Of course, the passing of one deadline simply gives way to an unobscured view of the next. After that club event, that paper is due. Midterms give way to finals. The clock doesn’t ever stop ticking, and if you’re juggling a lot of obligations, it’s easy to feel like you’re racing from one checkpoint to the next, swatting off distractions of the here and now like irritating flies.
A disturbing sort of tunnel vision starts to predominate. If your view is constantly clouded by the next thing on the to-do list, even if it’s days or weeks away, you start to live your life always leaning uncomfortably into the future, never standing firmly in the present.
With this kind of attitude, it’s hard to admit to ourselves that maybe the deadlines will never disappear — that life will always be this hectic. But I also know that the obligations and due dates that fill up my calendar are necessary components of my most engaging and satisfying activities. As much as I might complain about paper due dates, my philosophy essays and the discussions that precede them reflect the best of my time at Penn. My weekly column, the most frequent deadline of the semester, has encouraged me to share and discuss my ideas in unexpected and rewarding ways.
So how can we reconcile the stress of exams and due dates with the rewards of an engaged life? Rather than wishing away our obligations, we should recognize that they will always be there, and that there’s no need to allow them to weigh so heavily on our minds. Having significant amounts of unfinished work is a state of being for most of us. We have to become comfortable with the fact that no matter how well organized we are, we will always be approaching deadlines; we will always have a lot of obligations.
This realization can actually be freeing, because it demands that we stop viewing our time as one countdown clock after the next. There’s a key difference between planning for the future and mentally dwelling in it, and if deadlines will always be a part our lives, we should stop thinking that having them obliges us to live in constant anticipation of the next one on the list.
Once we acknowledge that the day when we have unlimited amounts of free time will never actually arrive, it doesn’t make sense to put off enjoying all of the other enriching things with which we fill our lives until the imaginary time when the number of things on the to-do list falls to zero.
So, as the semester draws to a close, let’s give ourselves permission to have moments of calm — to take a deep breath, go for a walk or talk to a friend about something entirely unrelated to the list of exams we have yet to take and papers we have yet to write. And let’s not feel guilty about it. Even if it’s not Dec . 20 yet.
Sophia Wushanley is a College senior from Millersville, Pa., studying philosophy. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. “Another Look” appears every Tuesday.
Please note All comments are eligible for publication in The Daily Pennsylvanian.