I’ve been stressing out about writing. I have a number of writing projects–my novel, a new geocaching story, an interview write-up–that I could be doing but I’m not. And the writing that I am doing, blogging, feels like it is messing with my head. I go to a new place now and the first thing I think of is, “how am I going to write about this?” Is it fodder for the novel? The story? The blog? Should I just “file it away somewhere” for future reference? How am I going to do that? My brain is already full . . .
I also slept poorly last night, and the night before. It’s tempting to blame the traffic noise on this street corner, the thin windows, these hotel beds with their hard mattresses, or the various people I owe an email to. Or on my concerns that my daughter is not going to find a good college fit. Everyone says the college admissions process is stressful and awful these days–so I could blame that, it’s an easy target.
My daughter’s college search is bringing back memories. How could it not? Thirty-three years ago, I applied–and was accepted–to 6 illustrious institutions of higher education. I graduated from Princeton University with an A.B. in Biology the same year as actress Brooke Shields. Even back then the college admissions process was getting a little hairy for some of us. Even at age 15, I was no stranger to sleep deprivation and stress. And at that age, my self-image was very tied up with being a “smart” kid. I lacked the perspective and life experience to put any of the process or expectations into a larger context. When I was in the throes of it I remember thinking that I was suffering. And when I got in, I felt like I’d been through some big rite-of-passage ordeal. But back then, the acceptance rate for Princeton applicants was around 17%, not the 6.99% it was in 2015. One can never be sure, of course, and direct comparisons are impossible, but I suspect I wouldn’t be admitted if I applied today.
I also have the sneaking suspicion that some time about now, someone, somewhere is going to utter the words, “First World Problem.” That someone could even be me. I mean, I won the college admissions lottery, didn’t I? Didn’t that make it all worth it? Why wouldn’t I want the same for my own daughter now that it’s her turn? Do I even know what suffering means?
All I can say is, yes, I think I do. I remember how satisfied I felt a couple of years ago when I dismissively referred to the phenomenon that this author is complaining about as a “First World Problem” on Facebook. But today, as I turn my umbrella right side out for the second time, or stare out the window at the gray Oregonian rain while the car thermometer reads 42-degrees Fahrenheit, I realize that that kind of satisfaction only happens if you’re talking about Someone Else’s Problem. Not when it gets applied to your own problem.
Seasonal Affective Disorder is real. If I lived in the Pacific Northwest year round, I’d probably be suffering from it. When I was in college and graduate school, I suffered from depression, on and off. I wasn’t unrelentingly depressed; there were bright spots and fun times too. (Even for this, I can be grateful it wasn’t worse.) Stress and sleep deprivation contributed to it. Lack of light contributed to it too. Most of this was pre-Prozac; talking to a counselor helped, but otherwise there wasn’t much else that could be done. And I survived. I got better. While these days I sometimes feel down, I no longer consider myself depressed, and haven’t for many years.
So yes, I’m grateful that I’m here touring a group of very lovely colleges with my daughter, a young person who has both the ability and desire to go to college. I’m grateful that she has opted out of the worst aspects of the college admissions rat race; we are looking at small liberal arts colleges where undergraduates get lots of personal attention from professors, where standardized test scores are optional, where studying abroad is encouraged and supported, and where the Chemistry department has a dog for a mascot. And I’m grateful too that I’ve got things to write about. That I already enjoy my teaching job, and that I have the opportunity to complement it with a career as a writer. And that my husband has a good enough job that we can still afford to have our daughter attend one of these colleges.
I have a lot to be grateful for, and I am. But I have also found it to be true that to whomever much is given, of him will much be required; and to whom much was entrusted, of him more will be asked. (Luke 12:48)
Not a lot is made of this Bible verse in Unitarian-Universalism, at least not the forms of UU I’ve experienced. In UU, they often stop at gratitude, as if gratitude alone makes everything better. Gratitude helps, but it’s not enough. My own experience of this verse tends towards the descriptive, not the prescriptive. With great gifts come great responsibilities, not because some God in the sky says so, but because they are a karmic package deal.
And I don’t think the suffering associated with figuring out what is required by the gifts I have received is a mere “First World Problem,” best dismissed and let go of because others have it worse. Rather, this suffering is an impetus to meditation, to seeking guidance, even to prayer if that’s something you do. It’s also a call to compassion: compassion for everyone, even those who look privileged and comfortable on the outside, because you really don’t know what they might be wrestling with on the inside.