The language of anxiety

The elephant in the room

Andrew Breland

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

The weather is cold and dreary. Nightly snowfalls cover the streets, as students begrudgingly muddle their way to class, hoping for some godsend of a last-minute “Class Canceled” email. While some students would use that reprieve as an excuse to return to the alluring siren call of their beds, others—dare I say a majority—would use the time to catch up on work. It is the derivative of the age-old and oft-mentioned problem: “I skip class to do work for class.”

However, if I were to simply say that students were overwhelmed with work from their classes, I would hardly be observing the larger truth. It remains that, beyond classwork, students also suffer from the commitments and responsibilities of other activities. January is perhaps the worst example of this.

Simultaneous with the start of spring semester, students get new positions in organizations, new leadership roles in their chapters, new opportunities for paid jobs and new research positions to go along with a renewed and often more-difficult-than-the-fall academic schedule. Then there are also continued commitments. There are organizations, jobs and duties that carry over from December. A month away from school did not alleviate their presence.

Somewhere along the way it became okay that I had no time to “enjoy,” no time alone, no time to reflect.

This happens to everyone. Even as a senior who has experienced nearly the same thing every year, I still take the opportunity to add yet another organization or responsibility to my ever-increasing list of “things I do.” But the problem is never more troublesome than for the freshmen. Perhaps easily coasting through a first semester, they overload their schedule with new, harder classes. But even if the first semester was not easy, the winter months tend to bring reevaluation of your experiences and new ideas about what you should be doing or participating in. The things you decided were important not 6 months ago may no longer be that way today.

This by itself, however, is not an issue. College is largely an experiment in self-discovery. Reevaluation of your principles is properly a part of that process. It’s for that reason, that when a freshman drops out of something I run or organize, my reaction is not, “You’re dead to me,” but, rather, “I understand.”

The issue comes in, though, for all of us, when we complain about it. Everyone has heard it. “I have soooo much work.” “This teacher assigns waaaaaaay too much work for this class.” “There’s no way I’ll get this done.” “I can’t do this. It’s too hard.” These are the words you hear from students. Let’s be clear, though: These aren’t the students that are struggling in class for academic reasons. You hear this instead from the student taking 18 credits, with leadership or heavy involvement in four organizations, working over 15 hours a week and still intent on having some semblance of a life outside these commitments.

I use these specific numbers because that was my experience during my third year in college. And I was guilty of the crime of complaints to the highest degree. Rather than taking a step back and enjoying the limited time I have left in school, though, my final year brought enrollment into a Master’s degree program, a new job with over 20 hours a week and new organization commitments. Anxiety, the side effect of these sorts of situations, is all too present a reality in my life, as well as the lives of all those who have similar commitments, schedules and workloads.

I was laying out some of these realities to a colleague at work. Her reaction was one that I have perhaps become too accustomed to: “Are you crazy?” Upon reflection, my response was maybe worse: “I like to think of it as masochism.” The worst part is, the statement was true.
Somewhere along the way it became okay that I had no time to “enjoy,” no time alone, no time to reflect. Writing this, that seems to just be reality and I am content with that. But is that really the reality in which we want to live?

My holiday break brought another experience that seems relevant here. Traveling through Pennsylvania, I had the pleasure of visiting family whose reaction to general overcommitted-ness among students was, “This is so wrong. These kids are burning themselves out. It doesn’t make sense.” This wasn’t said by a concerned parent, but instead by a current student, bemoaning her class’ experiences. My reaction again was, “No, we won’t. It’s all okay.”

Three weeks later, I stand by that reaction. Students are overly involved. It is reality. But in the same breath, I cannot say this is a reality brought on by choice. Somewhere, there is a systemic drive to do more and, presumably, therefore be more. Younger and younger, children are driven to get involved. We make prodigies out of the simply talented. We make talent where perhaps none exists. Society has embraced and zealously practices the Gladwellian 10,000-Hour Rule.

Again, I cannot call this a bad thing. I have been raised as one of the first generations of students socialized by this reality, as have the vast majority of students currently in undergraduate coursework at Case Western Reserve University. However, it is important to understand what that reality means for us. We have to be involved, it seems. We have to do better. We have to simply be better. All of us do. Our continual complaints are simply our socialized recognition of that reality. Or maybe they are a cry for help.

The too-often used “Great Gatsby” quote that began this column is an interesting observation. We do beat on. We cannot escape the society and culture of which we have found ourselves the products. We also, however, understand and largely embrace the culture. We continue to adhere to our environment all the while complaining, shouting our anxious voices into the abyss.

Andrew Breland, senior, writes a weekly Opinion column. Contact him at