blog,  Essay,  Life Lessons,  Mindset

Stress is a Choice

I went to college on the other side of the country from where I lived. It was a nine hour trip, with two layovers, not including travel to and from the airport. I went alone, sight unseen other than the catalog. I had an independent spirit then, just as I do now.

I don’t remember the trip being hard, I remember it being exciting. But I do remember being worried that the cab driver who brought me from the airport to campus would take me to the wrong college and I wouldn’t realize because I’d never visited. Everything turned out fine. I got dropped off at the correct college, found my dorm, got settled, met my roommate and started my adventure toward a degree.

I was excited to be there. I’d gotten into my stretch school. Academically, this school and the other students seemed way ahead of me. As I learned in my classes, these students were reading Ovid’s fairy tales as children and I was reading Sweet Valley High. They were skiing in Canada and Switzerland and I was shoving the heel of my foot in crushed coke cans to clomp around on the street like I was wearing high heels. This is not to say I didn’t travel and wasn’t exposed to culture growing up — I was — but I felt inadequate in their shadows. I felt intellectually unprepared. Maybe everyone feels like this when they get to college.

It didn’t help that I was a solid C student and had enough problems in high school that I ended up missing several weeks and then finally leaving one school in the middle of Junior year (the most important for college admissions!) to start at another school.

I also was rejected from schools I was sure I would get into which felt like a crushing blow to my hopes. I was only conditionally accepted to my “safety school” if I agreed to attend remedial classes in the summer before freshman year. To make it to college, the college of my choice felt a bit miraculous.

So, to be at this school, my first choice, with all these smart people was huge. I was star struck by the beautiful buildings, the unfamiliar terrain, the exotic and cultured students. I was excited to be semi-independent as a college student, in charge of my own hours, accountable to no one for where I went, what I ate and able to forge a future for myself by reading books, writing papers, exchanging ideas and developing my mind! I was going to be a playwright! A writer! A creative spirit! An artist! Look out world!

After the freshmen were settled and the families went back home, we walked around in packs based on who we had just met on our floor of our dorm. We walked in a pack to the post office, to the social event for incoming freshman and back to our dorms. I thought about how the paths I was walking as a Freshman, reminding myself which way to turn to get to one building or another would become second nature to me by the time I left and that seemed amazing to me.

Moving creates a lot of trash and the freshman class dumpsters were overflowing that first week. Parents had shipped computers and small refrigerators and boxes of stuff to the dorms and the packaging for everything from brand new toothbrushes to bedding sets was stuffed into an overflowing brown metal dumpster on the north side of our dorm by the parking lot, right below my room. If I looked out the window, we could see the parking lot and below us, the dumpster. The dumpster, incidentally, became a ladder many nights for myself and other students who got locked out of our rooms and needed to climb up to the second floor. But at this point, it was just a dumpster, full of trash, awaiting removal.

On the second or third day after the parents left, the dumpsters were still full, not that we gave them any thought. Who thinks about dumpsters of trash when you are embarking on your sparkling adult life full of promise and joy and money and fame! Amirite?
 
My roommate and I were leaving the dorm to go to breakfast and were startled to see three grown men digging through the dumpster. They looked like bums. They were wearing dirty jeans, had bearded faces, and had traveled on bikes with saddlebags to hold their belongings. On the back of their bikes, they had colorful rolled up Mexican blankets — just like the ones some of my new friends had pinned to the walls of their dorm rooms for decoration. Two other students were talking to them, so we approached.

It was so strange to see these dirty old bums on our landscaped campus full of youth. My roommate thought we should call campus police, but I wasn’t sure. They seemed to be chatting in a friendly manner and I was curious. I’d never talked to a bum before. I was here for new experiences, after all!

This story of meeting these bums has stayed with me for twenty-five years. I think about these bums every time I am stressed, anxious, unhappy at work or feeling like a failure. But the reason I think of them isn’t what you would think. I don’t think “There but for the grace of God go I” feeling grateful for my luck in life at never being homeless or poor. I don’t think about social services or mental illness or misfortune. Not for these bums.

These bums were excited to meet us. They were excited about our enthusiasm for our educations. They were excited to chat with us because we had one shocking thing in common. We had all attended the very same prestigious college where we were standing. One bum was a former judge. I can’t remember the occupations of the other bums, but I remember they were esteemed and profitable.

What happened? What terrible, horrible, awful, unexpected, unavoidable thing had happened to them that brought them from the heights of their careers down to the depths of the society living as homeless vagrants rummaging through the garbage dumpsters of their alma mater?

Nothing happened to them, they happened to their jobs. They quit. They quit their jobs, they quit their big houses and their big yards, they quit their country club memberships and social obligations. They quit all their stuff. They quit the rat race.

“We’re living the dream! We’re free!”

Everything they had worked for and built was not worth the stress and pressure they had piling on them. The cars and trips and shiny things were more oppressive than societies upturned noses.

“We just want to bike around and read books and swim in the river and meet people. We don’t need much.” These grown men decided that the life they had worked so hard for, the life that we were about to work so hard for, was a trap.

They’d jimmied an escape hatch.

When things get rough for me, I think about how there are usually so many more options than I think. Nothing is all or nothing, even if that’s what they chose. There are ways to quit some things without quitting everything, but sometimes, for some people, is it worth it to quit everything — all at once? Was it worth it for them? Did they ever regret it? Did they ever go back to work? What did their families think? If I recall correctly, one man had sent his daughter to our same school and as soon as she graduated, he turned in his resignation. His responsibility was complete, and he could put himself out of his misery. She was launched, and he could eject.

I think about how most of our stress is related to STUFF. The buying, maintaining and accumulating of stuff. Is stuff the cause of our stress? I think about how most of our pressure and anxiety is related to work and getting paid and grinding away so that we can get more STUFF. I think about how much or our anxiety is related to how we see ourselves or believe others see us and trying to never disappoint, always impress. Is it possible to truly reject the pressures of status and social acceptance to the point of being willing to have a vagabond’s life?

These weren’t mentally ill, drug addicted or stupid men. These were bright, stable, established men with successful careers digging through our trash.

They are an extreme example. Maybe that’s why the memory of them has stuck in my mind. But the lesson is important. Where we are is a choice. And for most of us, we are free to make different choices if we need to. The things that hold us back are a need for approval, status, and stuff. How important these things are, and if they are worth the daily strain and pressure of our current lifestyles is something we have to decide on our own. But how much or what we think we couldn’t live without is actually unnecessary? How much of what we think we couldn’t live without is actually making us miserable?

I wrote about the trap a couple years ago. I think we all get stuck in the trap. To be free of pressure you have to be free of responsibility, but responsibilities are often the source of our joy: our kids, our relationships.

I also wrote about how I manage the trap by Living the Dream one hour at a time.

Harold and Maude is my favorite movie. I adore Maude. I adore her spirit and her charm and leave you with this quote of hers,

“Well if some people get upset because they feel they have a hold on somethings. I’m just acting as a gentle reminder, here today, gone tomorrow so don’t get attached to things. Now with that in mind I don’t mind collecting things. I’ve collected quite a lot of stuff in my time. Yeah, this is all memorabilia — but it’s incidental, not integral, if you know what I mean.”

If you enjoyed this post and would like to have exclusive access to new content as it is released, please subscribe to my work on Patreon. 

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: