Freud said that suffering is subjective, and that’s why we can pity others in their hardships, but we can’t truly understand or empathize.
That might also explain why, when you’re stressed or anxious, you feel like you’re experiencing something collossal, beyond compare, unparalleled in its scope in the whole of human history.
I remember clearly that I wasn’t nervous the first time I took my SATs. It was October 3rd of 2015, and I hadn’t studied at all. I went into that tiny little trailer at one of the local high schools, sat down for four hours, and filled out the tiny standardized bubbles silently. My biggest recollection from that day was how much I hated that classroom: it was cramped, the posters on the walls were clumsily covered with black fabric lest they reveal some hint that might be advantageous to us test takers, and an obnoxious boy from my high school was sitting right behind me. During our brief breaks, he would loudly boast of his intelligence to anyone who would listen: That essay was so easy, were they kidding with those vocabulary questions, that math section was a gift.
I wasn’t stressed because of two reasons. This was my first time taking the test, so I reasoned that it would be my baseline, there was always time to improve later on. And second, I hadn’t studied, so there was no pressure to do well. There would be no shame in whatever score I received, no anxiety about whether or not my work would pay off.
So I didn’t stress about the test before I took it, or even while I was taking it. Nope. The anxiety came right after I turned it in.
Suddenly, my work belonged to someone else. There would be record of my score in the College Board System. That means that colleges would see that I took it once, and everyone knows that they frown on a student taking the test too many times. I had just used up one of my precious chances. And now that I had taken it, I would actually have to do work. I had my baseline, so now I needed to make a study plan. I needed to plan ahead, and figure out how to improve my score, and do all this before my next test date. Because one mistake is all it takes, for The Future to go down the drain.
And then my mind started working so fast that before I could stop myself, I was listing out every single thing that could possibly go wrong in my life, and at first I accumulated them like tiny grains of sand, but I soon found myself staring at a whole beach.
I started with the things I needed to do before the weekend ended. I hadn’t practiced piano all week. Our tennis team had three matches in a row, and my cocaptain and I needed to present a possible lineup. I needed to stay on top of all my work in AP Biology, read sample essays online because I didn’t want to slip up in AP Lang, and search for practice questions for my upcoming AP U.S. History exam. And then for AP Art History, AP Psychology, and AP Physics, I needed to finish various projects and assignments. But, at least I find my greatest happiness hidden between pages in my textbooks.
And it’s not just the doing that needs to be regulated. It’s the mental aspect. You can’t allow yourself to not be stressed;there is no time to waste. The luxury of taking a breath and realizing that this, right now, junior year of high school, isn’t the end all be all of existence, that luxury is not ours to be had. That belief is untenable.
This is the world we learn in, interact in, live in. A world in which no mistakes are forgiven. A world in which the future is so slippery and precarious that we would rather hold our breaths until we pass out than exhale a bit. A world in which we don’t go to the bathroom in class in the hopes that the bathroom pass can be turned in for extra credit, and we agonize for thirty hours about a test that only lasts one, and we cry when our teacher won’t round our 89.7% to an A because everyone knows, the difference between an A and a B is the the difference between success and failure.
I’ve seen classmates fire off five paragraph essays to assistant principles and school boards and district supervisors because a teacher cruelly gave them a B. And kids crying, because Harvard might find out that they slipped up, that they forgot to study for a quiz, that they’re human. And all of these little pressures are added on top of the extracurricular activities we are expected to keep up, the standardized tests we need to be ready for, and let’s not forget the social life that we hopefully try to make time for.
It’s only been getting worse. Every class I’m in, teacher will reminisce about how much easier school and college was back in their day. Most of them only took AP classes in subjects they were actually interested in. Sounds like a foreign concept, I know.
So I don’t think the system will change. At least not for a long time, and not before it gets worse. Acceptance rates are shrinking as more and more people decide that they want to attend college, and the competition will only grow more stiff. And yes, you can criticize the system. I know I have; that it’s devalued us as students, that it makes learning less meaningful, that it cannot promise reward, only a lot of stress.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
I’ve done all of it: the six AP classes, the varsity sports team, the musical instrument. Volunteer time, standardized testing, along with working a couple of different jobs. And I experienced that moment of panic right after I handed my first SAT in.
Here’s what allowed me to breathe throughout the year:
Realizing that anything you do will only affect the immediate present.
Nothing is set in stone for the future. The difference between and A and a B, that isn’t the difference between success and failure. Fifty extra points on your SATs does not mean that you will feel happy and fulfilled later on. You make your future, you are constantly making it, and you don’t need to make it all right now.
I can already hear the protesters crying, but colleges won’t look at me if I don’t get an A, but I won’t get a job if I don’t go to a top university, but doing well now is crucial to setting up the rest of my life.
Maybe. I’ve never been part of an admissions faculty, or hired people for a job, so I wouldn’t know. Maybe all of that is true. But you certainly won’t do yourself any favors by thinking this way.
So try instead to loosen up on that far off vision of the future. Keep the positives, your goals and aspirations and ideals, but lose the fear and anxiety that weigh them down.
Accept that no matter how much you try, you can’t write a future for yourself that will be set in stone. A stellar SAT score does not necessarily mean admission, just as a lower score does not necessarily mean rejection.
Instead of forcing yourself into classes you have no interest in for the purpose of securing your future, find some joy in the present.
Take AP Art History because you stared in awe at the paintings you saw the last time you went to the museum with your parents. Try AP Lang because you enjoyed writing back when you did the Young Author’s Fair in elementary school. Sign up for AP Psychology because you have an almost morbid fascination wth mental disorders.
Then, study for the tests because you know you can do well, and want to prove it. If you fail, that’s only relevant in the immediate present. There will be no reason to agonize and torture yourself, because there’s always another present, and therefore another chance for you to try again.
Don’t make decisions because you are under the illusion that it will have some great impact on your future. Not every moment is a crossroad; I would go so far as to argue that few moments ever are.
Take a deep breath and realize that you can only be completely in charge of the present. So take a study break and go get a cup of coffee with your friends. Take a nap in the middle of the day because your notes can wait. Take a breath and realize that life has regained its color when you stopped trying to plan it.
Originally published at medium.com