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The alarm blares five minutes too early, mocking with a song once-loved. Squeezing eyes shut and burrowing tighter into the last moments of peace, our stomachs drop, and the reality of the day ahead sinks in. One after another, stresses come rushing: school, extracurriculars, sports, work, college, family, friends, opinions, relationships, the future. Working up the energy to roll our unwilling bodies out of bed, we step onto another conveyor belt day. Things that once brought joy, are now only one more burdensome addition to our already-full plates. Basically, it’s all become too much.
But when did life become this?
Picture second grade: happy-go-lucky, a gap-toothed smile plastered wide across flushed cheeks after finishing a game of capture the flag, we learned how to spell “island” and chose a Disney Channel original movie after running errands with Mom. More importantly, though, chances are we began every day excited for what lay ahead. Our conversations were playing pretend, and we worried about missing favorite cartoons. We loved learning and going to school.
Somewhere along the way, things changed.
Emphatic declarations of “I hate everything,” “Kill me,” and “This class makes me want to die” are not rarities in our hallways, but commonplace among even the most outwardly successful students. The “glorification of busy” makes everything seem like a competition. “I only got five hours of sleep, and I didn’t even get to finish my essay,” one student will lament. “Oh yeah? I only got two,” the other replies, glassy-eyed but clutching a completed stack of papers like a lifeline. We run and run and run like a hamster on a wheel, sacrificing health and happiness to achieve numbers used to compare ourselves to others. We do everything because it has to be done, we take on more because we must do more to be worthy, and we are often left with a life-load so overwhelming that we can barely focus on more than the next class period, the next deadline, the next thing on our schedule, the next essay, without feeling nauseous.
This stress mounts and surmounts, culminating to a whirling dervish of unhappiness that can seem all-encompassing. It’s impossible to get out.
Until it isn’t.
Sooner or later, something happens to break the cycle. Too often, though, it is a tragedy, a near-miss, an epiphany-inducing or groundshaking realization that this life–the life that actually lets us experience stress–is not guaranteed.
It’s easy to essentially forget that we are wholly human, that we are not the sum of work churned out (and yet to churn out). But when tragedy strikes, life’s uncertainty rockets to the forefront: it makes us aware. We stop. We remember. We think.
If that five-minutes-too-early alarm marked our last rude awakening, would we look back upon our short lives and be happy? Would we be satisfied that our last days were spent absorbed with fruitless worry and jam-packed schedules? Would we be okay with allowing the say of others to dictate who we are?
Chances are, you would remember the times you took to do things that truly make you happy, and that remind you of the clean space outside the stress-induced haze that surrounds immediate life. You’d think of the time that you drove all the way to Provincetown with people you enjoy, even though it was Sunday and you had to fill up your gas tank. You’d think of the time you went to Crisp on an ordinary school night, even though you knew you still had some calculus to do. You’d think of the spring afternoons that you and your best friend got ice cream before parking at the beach, even though you recognized that there might be more practical things you could be doing in that moment.
When all is said and done, we’ll be glad of passions and experiences. We’ll cherish laughs shared with friends, family, and loved ones. We won’t think of the hours spent worrying and stressing–instead, the impact made on others will stand out. And the more memories we can make, the more we can put the worries into perspective. Maybe it’s not the end results that hold gravity–whether we immediately define that end as the grade on the test, the college acceptance, the job, or the end of life. Our efforts along the way are important, but maybe our experiences matter a little bit more.
We must make the conscious choice to stop. We cannot let tragedy be the only thing to break our cycle and make us think. Consider daily just how it is that you are really alive.