The art of quitting

The elephant in the room

Andrew Breland

Earlier this week, David Brooks, the New York Times columnist who had been on book leave for three months, returned with much fanfare to the opinion pages of one of the nation’s most prestigious newspapers.

Brooks, whose commentary normally focuses on politics, morality, and the humanities, asked the question, “How much emotional and psychic space should politics take up in a normal healthy brain?” At first glance, the question seemed inconsequential, a typical Brooks monologue on the depravity of humans and the pitfalls of modern society.

Except that is not what Brooks wrote.

Instead, Brooks chastised those who would impart politics as the most important aspect of their lives. Not modern politics, not partisan politics, not even ideology-driven manic politics like the kinds proffered on Fox News and MSNBC, but politics in general; to Brooks, politics are “too balky an instrument.” The political system and government are “the stem of the flower, not the bloom.” To devote more than a limited amount of attention to this mundane activity deprives one of the ability to experience the rest of society, culture and living.

But the phenomenon that Brooks explores is not limited to those who are obsessive about politics. Too often, people can find themselves caught up in a mania over something that in the end is less meaningful than other events around them.

At a university, especially a large, heavily-funded research university like our own, the possibilities for enchantment abound. But students too often become enraptured by a single activity or outlet, in turn becoming oblivious to the world of amazement that may exist on the other side of a door, wall or campus.

This is not, however, an indictment of those who choose to only be involved in a single activity, group, or interest. We all know many people—successful, bright and happy—who took advantage of the single club, became president and moved on to bigger things. That’s their choice. Nor is this an indictment of huge workloads, exams, presentations and other academic criteria that come with being in college. Though our workload here is larger than most, some students still find ways to pursue opportunities while enduring the trials of Case Western Reserve University. Others, for one reason or another, do not.

But this existence begs the question: What are they missing?

A couple weeks ago, while talking to a senior here at CWRU, she exclaimed “Next semester, when I’m done with everything, I’ll actually be able to be a college student.” She was not referring to the Hollywood portrayal of college, which includes drinking, partying and little work. Instead she lamented the fact that throughout nearly four years here, she never attended a single lecture, reading, symposium or other event, beside those required by classes. Due to excessive schoolwork, a hectic work schedule, involved extracurricular and otherwise biological tasks, i.e. eating and sleeping, her schedule had not permitted time for personal advancement and reflection in almost four years.

Is this existence not unfortunate?

There is a strong case to be made that the most efficient and lasting way to find the time to explore the possibilities of the university is to rid oneself of the commitments that prevent our involvement in other things. In simpler terms, quit.

If the instruction in the last sentence caught you off guard, or seemed contrary to the instructions you have received from guidance counselors, advisors and parents in the past, allow me to provide an explanation. I do not mean to encourage every student at CWRU to quit everything in the interest of personal enlightenment. To do so would be to destroy an active and successful community of students on and off campus. What instead I propose is a mass reflection on what we do with our time. If you are involved in three organizations, work 15 hours a week, take 21 credit hours and still try to go out on Friday nights, something might be rotten in the state of Denmark.

Instead, consolidate your activities. While being the vice chancellor of the CWRU men’s bocce ball team might be fun, those three hours you spend in practice twice a week are certainly not helping your academic career.

And with this extra time, take advantage of some of the culture that CWRU and Cleveland has to offer. It amazes me that there still exist some students on this campus that have never walked into the art museum or found their way into reserved student seats at the Cleveland Orchestra. But more than this, take advantage of the programs the campus brings to you. Attend a lecture on the “Corporatization of Higher Education” (something I did last month), or attend a poetry reading in Guilford where classmates and professors alike showcase their own original work. Take a day off and attend a symposium at the law or medical school. A more cultured, well-rounded class can change the world more than any group of singularly-trained robots can.

And no one can argue you will be any worse for it.

Anna Quindlen, in an address written, but never delivered, for Villanova’s commencement ceremony said, “There will be hundreds of people out there with your same degree; there will be thousands of people doing what you want to do for a living. But you will be the only person alive who has sole custody of your life. Your particular life. Your entire life.”

We all must take this advice to heart. Break through the monotony of over-involvement and find time for personal reflection and growth. Find something to quit. It’s eye opening and, to a certain degree, freeing for you to step outside your comfort zone into the wilderness that is an open schedule. Perhaps through this, we will be able to see not just the stem but the bloom of the flower we all aim for.

Andrew Breland is a double major in political science and English, Vice President of the Phi Alpha Delta Pre-Law Fraternity, and former Chair of the Case Western Reserve Constitution Day Committee.