It’s okay to “find yourself” later

I don’t think it’s acknowledged or made clear enough that everyone develops at different times and everyone’s life story is different. Some people know right away what they want to do; other people think they know who they are or what they want to do and then they discover that they’re mistaken. Different opportunities and different ideas present themselves at different moments.

I’m learning to give myself grace over this. Throughout the course of high school I have participated in some activities I did not enjoy as much as I thought I would, and others that I enjoyed more than I expected. Heading into my senior year, I feel as though I’ve finally gotten a good solid grip on where I want to go, who I want to be, what I want to do. Many of the things that I’m going to do this next year are completely different than any of the activities I’ve done up to this point. Which means that the awesome stuff I just know I’m going to accomplish can’t be included on my college application. And that’s okay. In fact, I think it’s more than okay.

It’s freeing.

College applications are fleeting, but creating yourself is an ongoing process and you should never feel bad about where you are (especially in relation to other people). I’m starting a club next year and I will be its president. Why couldn’t I have started it before now? Because I hadn’t thought of it. But now that I have thought of it, I’m passionate about making it a reality.

It’s liberating to know that you’re doing something not to seek to impress others or just for the sake of a future college education.

You’re doing it because you believe that it’s important and meaningful and that it will cause you to become the person you were meant to be.

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The Myth about Artists and Mental Health

My English professor said something today that greatly disturbed me. She told my class that many artists, in order to produce great work, go through immense pain and suffering, and that the price of their art is often their lives. She based this observation on the fact that many of the famous writers whom we had been studying in class ― for example, Virginia Woolf, Tadeusz Borowski, and Akutagawa Ryunosuke ― committed suicide. Therefore my teacher seemed to believe that art was tied to self-destruction. She even blatantly told us that if she had a choice between being a great artist or writer and being sane and healthy, she would definitely choose the later.

This rubbed me the wrong way.

Why couldn’t you be both?

The idea that creativity and artistic genius is linked to insanity and mental illness seems to me to undermine and degenerate the practice of being an artist. It made me feel that, as a teenage girl who has never been diagnosed with depression (I should mention that I have had mood problems and occasional depressive periods, but it has not been an ongoing condition) that I was somehow unqualified to be a writer ― that I had to be depressed to be a writer.

Honestly, this line of thinking is so perverse that I’m appalled at my professor for awakening it in me. Saying that mental illness results in artistic greatness is like saying that the sun rises because you wake up in the morning. It’s a logical fallacy. Post hoc ergo propter hoc. The two conditions are linked together even though they no effect on each other at all.

There are plenty of talented authors who are not mentally ill. Likewise, there are plenty of talented authors who are mentally ill. And mentally ill people who are not artistically inclined in any way. And mentally stable people who are also not artistically inclined.

You can’t make a blanket judgement like that about artists. It’s a pervasive, damaging, and (worst of all) somehow very believable myth. And it needs to stop.

Superficiality in the college decision process

One can’t help noticing when browsing multiple higher education advertising emails and pamphlets that most colleges and universities focus on highlighting the exact same things: their amenities, their award-winning athletic teams, and their post-graduation outcomes. Not only does all this sameness prevent one college from standing out from the rest (unless they have the brand-name power of the Ivy League, that is) but it shows their blatant superficiality. Or maybe it shows the superficiality of the high school juniors and seniors they are targeting. Either way, it leaves me profoundly dissatisfied.

For me, the most important factor of a college isn’t where it is, or what it provides, or who its students and teachers are, or even how well its academics prepare you for the workforce. These qualities don’t really touch the core of what an institution is or what it represents.

But there is a quality that does do that: Values.

By discerning what a college values, you know what kind of college experience you’ll have. You’ll know whether you’ll fit in or not, and what type of person you will become. Does this future vision of yourself please you? If yes, then the college should be considered. If not, wipe its name from your memory and never think of it again.

I think the hard part is knowing whether or not you should attend a college that aligns strictly with your values, or attend a college where you’ll encounter different perspectives and change positively (or maybe negatively) in result. It’s probably wisest to find a balance. Just as in any other area of life, you don’t want too much familiarity and sameness, but you also don’t want to feel like a fish out of water.

After being enrolled in public school against my will most of my life, I want to attend a Christian college that I know aligns with my values. However, I’m concerned that it may be less academically rigorous than another college I’m interested in attending. This college has the caveat of being proudly and resolutely conservative. To tell the truth, I don’t know if I can condone integrating myself into a school whose president openly supports President Trump and whose student body is LGBTQ-hostile. As someone who’s straight but values LGBTQ rights and identifies as an Independent, I can’t justify attending this college no matter how much I may admire and appreciate it in other ways. This is a saddening realization but also a very eye-opening one. I don’t want to surround myself with that kind of thinking, because I fear that I too will begin to think that way.

Colleges don’t just teach you information or how to succeed in “the real world.” They teach you a way of looking at the world, a worldview that will shape how you think and act for the rest of your life. When choosing a college, I don’t think you should ask yourself superficial questions like whether you like the campus or were impressed by the decor in the library or the ginormous sports arena. You should ask yourself what that college believes. What it values. How it will change your own beliefs and values as you take up residence there, sit in its classrooms, listen to its professors, and walk across its campus. That is the crucial question. That is what matters above all else.

Sexual harassment and the rise of the heroine

Although Hollywood is currently infamous as the source of the #metoo scandal, ironically the Californian film industry may actually end up becoming both the cause and the solution to the ongoing problem of sexual harassment.

While many actresses have recently endured mortifying and abusive conduct from their male colleagues, the female characters they portray on screen are some of the most brilliant, versatile, and inspiring representatives of their sex in cinematic and literary history. Female stereotypes are finally dying. Girls are no longer being designated as only the love interest, the concerned mother, the caring wife. Actress Amy Adams, for example, played the intelligent and brave female linguist Louise Banks in the 2016 movie Arrival. Adams recently spoke out against misconduct from David Russell, Hollywood film director and producer. She may have partially gained confidence to do so by portraying empowered females such as Banks on screen.

The truth is, female characters are situated at the front and center of more and more TV shows and are the face of more and more franchises every year. In 2016, women made up 29% of protagonists in the top 100 films at the U.S. box office and 37% of major characters overall. These included not only Louise Banks, but also Moana, Jyn Erso from Rogue One, and Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Dorothy Vaughan from Hidden Figures. The linguist who is essential to decoding extraterrestrial speech. The Disney princess who rescues her people rather than being rescued by a love interest. The lone rebel who sacrifices her life to save the Rebellion. The real-life African American scientists and mathematicians who made possible humanity’s first step on the moon. All of these women are strong in their own way and fighting for a cause they believe in. Women nationally and internationally look at these women and aspire to achieve similar triumphs in their own lives.

What defines these women is not just their ability to stand up for others but also their ability to stand up for themselves. Louise defies the military protocol enforced by her male peers in order to more effectively communicate with the aliens using empathy and compassion. Moana chooses to disregard her family’s wishes and pursue her own mission and doesn’t hesitate to put Maui in his place. When Jyn speaks her mind and the rebel council questions her due to her youth and gender, she still chooses to do what she believes to be right. Mark, Katherine, and Dorothy have to prove that they’re capable of intense mathematical problem solving and worth being listened to as women in the men-dominated environment of NASA.

By creating characters that women of all ages can love and identify with, Hollywood inadvertently exposed their own hidden evil. The paradox of abused women representing powerful women on screen cannot continue. Eventually they will assume the courage and moral sensibility of their fictional counterparts and fight back against sexual oppression and injustice so that no woman is forced to say #metoo again.

 

Let’s “hope” for the next generation of creatives

“Artist.”

The word was thrown out randomly by some unnamed student in my first hour English class this morning. We were discussing the future of the American economy: specifically, what jobs cannot be outsourced and therefore will still be alive and viable career options in the near future. Other students had already mentioned the obvious — doctors, lawyers, sports coaches. And then someone word-vomited the suggestion “artist” impulsively and facetiously as though they didn’t really believe in their answer.

And you know what my English teacher did?

She laughed and said, “Let’s hope there’s still artists in the future.” She treated what the student said and what she said as some kind of joke. And to me this little exchange symbolizes everything that’s wrong with my personal education system and the American education system as a whole.

I want to ask her if the word “hope” is used with any other kind of profession. Do we “hope” students go into medicine or law or business or teaching or any other kind of moderately respectable occupation? Do we “hope” students continue their athletic careers in college and maybe even beyond? No. We expect them to do so. And we give them the resources they need to succeed in this areas. We embrace these careers as viable options and encourage kids to go into them. And so they do. We treat these careers as ones that anyone can do with college courses, hard work, dedication, and time.

In contrast, no one in my school community expects any student to have a profession as any kind of artist or creative. We view those who do as aberrations, needed but bizarre gifts to society. We view creatives as born that way, not made that way. So the creativity in almost every single person who enters the school system is squashed out of them.

Even Chris Van Allsburg, the renowned children’s book author and illustrator who graduated from my high school half a century ago said that he did not pursue drawing in high school very seriously despite the fact that he enjoyed it and was good at it. Why? Because he, and other boys, were expected to become athletes. And guess what? That hasn’t changed at all, except for the fact that now girls at my high school are expected to become athletes as well. My community reveres this man but did nothing to aid him on his journey to creative success. He doesn’t owe anything to his high school. In fact, he probably hates it as much or more than I do.

It’s not only these relatively small comments from my English teacher and Van Allsburg that bother me. It’s the entire English curriculum that I’m taught, which is filled to the brim with hypocrisy. We spent a large part of the year reading books on race relations, watching documentaries, and discussing racial issues. (Any outsider would have thought it was a history class, not an English class.) The bothersome truth that none of us in that class could ignore was the fact that we were being educated on racism while living our day-to-day lives in a community and school system embedded with it. (A whopping 90% of the student body is white.) We treated it as a societal problem that could only be found in other places — Ferguson or Detroit — never once discussing its reality and prevalent role in our own community. Not only that, but we read a piece in our textbooks called The Case for Working with Your Hands that argued that there’s more value to a hands-on education rather than a pencil-and-paper one. And what did we have to do after reading this? Put pencil to paper and answer questions about it.

The irony of reading about why I shouldn’t be in my current educational system (like I have a choice) as a requirement of my current educational system kills me. It seems as though my teacher wants me to see my community and school’s deep flaws but I still must comply with them all the same. I’m being enlightened to what’s wrong with my societal institutions and then I’m rendered absolutely incapable of doing anything about it. I don’t know of anything more frustrating than that.

Finding your sweet spot

Before freshman year, my life was like a ride on the Hogwarts Express. Life moved slowly enough that I could admire the scenery as it rolled past. But entering high school put life into an entire new gear, and everything has accelerated. I’m no longer traveling on the idealistic Hogwarts Express, but on a high-speed Capitol train straight out of the Hunger Games. At 250 miles an hour, life is all a blur. High school is a wild roller-coaster ride that never shows any signs of slowing down.

I know I’m not the only one who feels this way. With so many places to be and so many things to do, every teen experiences some level of stress. The question is whether we should try to cope with this stress or attempt to minimize it. Is stress good, bad, or neither? Can and should we eliminate it, or must we let it rule our lives?

The Stress Response Curve, developed by Nixon in 1979, shows that certain levels of stress can actually help us perform better than we would otherwise. Good stress or “eustress” is a  low to medium amount of stress that gives us an advantage when it comes to sporting events, examinations, or large projects due at school.

At a certain level, however, there is a tipping point, and “distress” or bad stress can come into play, which leads to ill health, fatigue, and bad performance. The key, then, is not trying to eliminate stress altogether but to find a balance between good and bad stress.

How is finding balance possible?

Occasionally one is forced to prioritize and jettison unnecessary stress from one’s life in order to focus on more important responsibilities. The pressure experienced by many teens to “keep up” with the rest of their peers sometimes makes them blind to their own needs. They have to do what’s right for them, because everyone’s situation is different. Each person has their own unique burdens and responsibilities. What may work for one person will not work for another.

My eustress has turned to early signs of distress several times in my life, the most recent being March of 2017. I was already experiencing a rather busy schedule between school, robotics, and homework, with church and social events on the weekend. In the summer and autumn I had participated in cross country while also holding down a job. When robotics build season started, I quit my job, thus effectively eliminating unnecessary stress from my life.

However, with the addition of Track & Field in the spring, intensified commitment to my robotics team, and increased difficulty of schoolwork, I began to feel the pressure. I was exhausted all day and one night I broke down and hysterically cried.

I began to realize that my life, the way it now was, would solely consist of school, homework, and my sports; there was no time for anything else. By recognizing the warning signs early, I was able to quit track without suffering any consequences. In doing so, I was able to find my sweet spot: a manageable level of stress that will improve my physical, emotional, and mental health and allow me to perform better on my tasks in the future.

I believe that everyone will benefit from discovering their own sweet spots and, once found, should do their best to stay within its boundaries.

When you have nightmares about achieving your dreams

So, it’s a new year: 2018. A new semester for me at school. A new year for me: 17. A fresh page, so to speak. This is the time where you write down your goals and aspirations and resolve to be a better person than you were last year.

But what if your visions for your future self are wildly different, even contradictory? What if you want to be an amazing athlete as much as you’d like to perfect your art? How do you decide what goals to pursue in the limited amount of time you have? And what if, at the same time, the possibility of achieving your goals scares you to death even more than it exhilarates you?

Those are the issues I’m dealing with. I have so many dreams and so many ways I’d like to spend my time to improve myself and reach self-actualization. All of these dreams are equally important to me and I can’t decide which one would be the best to choose to really focus on. And those are only in addition to the academic goals that are a necessary and unfortunately inevitable part of being a high school junior.

While this inner conflict is going on, another inner conflict is also present. My desire to achieve my dreams is actually outweighed by my fear of achieving them. I’m a person who likes to deal with the abstract rather than the concrete. It’s more interesting to me, more appealing, more comforting for dreams to remain nebulous things in my future or my imagination. I don’t want to see the tangible products of my labor; I want to fantasize about them. I don’t want to be the person I could become, because that person wouldn’t be me, the person I am now. It would be someone else.

So I’m stuck in this cycle, this endless internal battle where one part of me begs for improvement and the other part is immobilized by fear or complacency. No one else understands it. I’m not sure if even I understand it myself. Meanwhile I keep my head down, my shoulders slump, I don’t eat, I don’t sleep, I fail because I’m less scared of failure than I am of success.

Why am I this way? I hate failing. I sob into my pillow for hours. I go do retakes during my lunch hour. I loathe myself when I feel too tired and irritable to do my homework and end up procrastinating and wasting time instead. But some inner voice within me sighs in relief also. I don’t want to be someone extraordinary, someone noticed. At the same time, I daydream about being a famous writer interviewed on Steven Colbert’s Late Night Show or being interviewed for an exclusive interview with the New York Times.

Here’s how I know for certain that I am afraid of success and winning. I was placed in the JV race for one of my cross country meets because I was struggling a bit at practice due to illness. However, I should have not been placed in the JV race. Why? Because, five seconds after the gun shot, I was already leading the race, strides ahead of the rest of my competition. And that distance only increased during the first three quarters of the race.

After I was about 75% through the race, people who were cheering for me started to warn me to pick up my pace, because apparently another girl was close on my tail. I was tiring at that point and did not. This girl leveled with me and we ran side by side. She told me in a panted breath to stick by her; I did for a while but then she left me to forge on ahead.

At that moment, desperation should have set in. I should have gritted my teeth against the pain and kept up with that girl. But I didn’t. I was relieved she passed me. I hated being first. I hated running alone, in front of everyone else. It felt wrong, and it scared me. So I let the girl pass me, and I got second place. As we both were bent over at the finish line with our hands on our knees, through heaving breaths we exchanged congratulations. And you know what I did then? I thanked the girl for beating me. I thanked her. She must have thought I was insane. I feel bad about doing it now because it must have made her feel that her win wasn’t legitimate — I had just let her win. Which was true, in a way, but I didn’t want her to know that.

Whenever I think of this event in my past, shame overwhelms me. What is wrong with me? Why do I despise success and embrace meritocracy? How can I fix this? I don’t know what to do. I don’t know if anyone else feels the way I do. I think it’s a very conceited and arrogant feeling to have. In the end, it’s only going to make me miserable.

If you’ve read to the end of this personal rant (if you have, thank you) could you tell me if you’ve ever felt the same way, or known any one else dealing with this issue? Do you have any suggestions for how I might fix/remedy it? How can I learn to fight hard to be the person I am meant by God to be?