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bill alexander_
Credit: Sammie Yoon

Dear Penn Students,

I was a little nervous when, on the occasion of my retirement as Director of CAPS, Caroline Simon, Daily Pennsylvanian Opinion Board Chair, invited me to write something I would like on mental health. I thought of the many issues concerning student mental health and my tenure at Penn.  Rather than contribute to the volumes of verbiage that already take up so much space, and having listened to you for so many years, I thought I would just tell a story.  

I don’t know how many of you have ever had a lesson on how to ride a motorcycle. As part of the training, there is an interesting problem presented. You are riding comfortably in the middle lane of a big highway. In front of you is a large flatbed truck carrying refrigerators. Suddenly, without warning, one of the refrigerators falls off the truck and crashes in the center lane in front of you. What are you to do?

The answer is: DO NOT look at the refrigerator. If you look at the refrigerator you will hit the refrigerator. Look to one side or the other. You will go wherever you look. You will not hit the refrigerator. Look where you want to go! 

File Photo

Don’t think that you are pretending the refrigerator is not there. Trust me, you will always be aware of the refrigerator. It is very compelling. It is in the middle of your road. You cannot deny it. You cannot pretend it is not there. But right now, do not hit the refrigerator. There will be lots of time to understand why the refrigerator fell off the truck and how it got in the road in front of you. You can become an expert in loading trucks with refrigerators and how to best secure them.  You can fully explore and understand the problem. You may even examine why you were so close to the truck in the first place. But for now, look where you want to go.

I’m guessing not many of us have taken lessons on riding a motorcycle. But all of us have refrigerators, maybe a couple. They come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes they might just look like a little concern because you’re not really prepared for that mid-term. Or maybe it could look like a conflict with a good friend or lover. It could be that disappointing feeling that you have let down your coach, or teammates, or worse, your parents. It might come as a depressed mood that you don’t understand or outright panic over something you understand all too well.  It might seem unavoidable. It might be nagging or it might be frightening. It can be very powerful. I don’t know what your refrigerator looks like. But I know you have one. And if some day, when you are not quite aware, it falls in front of you here is one thing you will remember: look where you want to go. 

Sometimes it is a little counterintuitive to know where to look so you might want to practice. 

Credit: Ananya Chandra

If you’re feeling a little empty, feed someone else. If you’re feeling unprepared, show a friend how. If you fear you are faking it, support someone honestly. You get the idea. Look where you want to go. 

This is not easy. Sometimes you might need help looking where you want to go so ask a friend, or counselor, or coach, or teacher, or parent, or mentor, or … just ask. And if your refrigerator takes the shape of asking for help, then offer to help a friend. They have refrigerators too. 

One of the best places to look when confronting a refrigerator is at the support from your community, whatever that means to you. That is often the safe place that misses the refrigerator. We insure the continued security of that safe place by looking at it and seeing it. It takes care of us and we take care of it. Practice looking outside your lane because there will occasionally be a refrigerator in front of you. Look where you want to go even when there is no refrigerator. Care for that space whether it be a place or a person or a family or a friend or an idea or a community. Or all of the above. 

One last thing. You will know that by looking where you want to go you do not hit the refrigerator. But also consider this: It is the refrigerator that reminds us about the safe places to look. Sometimes refrigerators have a way of introducing us and guiding us to the safer place. Ok, sometimes they force us. Do not be afraid of the refrigerators. We all have them. They happen. And because we know what to do about them, they do not scare us. And we are much more secure and confident on our motorcycle.

Take care of each other out there. 

Thanks for your stories.

BILL ALEXANDER has been the director of Counseling and Psychological Services since 2009 and was worked at CAPS for 19 years. He will be retiring this August.