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What Defines Us

Since a young age, many of us have searched for something—a hobby, a passion, a quirk—that "defines us." Certainly, for some, the depth and aptitude at which we pursue these activities played a large role in getting us where we are today. Yet these pursuits are not solely for the purposes of academic and professional advancement –studies have shown that college students with deep involvement in one or more extracurricular activities are happier than students without such involvement. I have noticed that my friends with passions—even my two quirky friends who are jointly passionate about automotive photography—tend to be happier than my friends with diffuse and milder interests.

For me it happened at age six; I discovered rock climbing, and from the first handhold I knew that rock climbing was my thing. My involvement in the sport grew with me, and by middle school I was training extensively on Tuesday and Thursday nights and spending the entirety of my weekend climbing. Between the rock-climbing Mecca of Yosemite National Park, indoor competitions, and an international scene of climbing aficionados, the sport was all-consuming.

High school brought larger muscles for climbing, and increased sacrifices on my part to climb at my best. My friends understood why I regularly left Friday-night parties at nine o’clock—it was necessary in order to wake up early the next morning for the six-hour drive to Yosemite. While I decided to attend a college with difficult academics and lesser rock-climbing opportunities (a very difficult decision) I maintained my passion in the transition to college life. Indeed, on my first Friday night at college, while my newly-made friends went to Rush Hour to scope out the local co-ed scene, I went to bed early, in preparation for a drive to New Hampshire, to scope out the local granite.

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I was rock climbing with friends from college about a month ago when my passion came crashing down—literally—to a halt. Mountaineering terrain is rated on a scale of Class 1 to Class 5, with Class 5 being the most difficult to navigate. Class 3 terrain involves steep hiking up blocky boulders, where one occasionally involves their hands for balance. I was walking up such Class 3 terrain, walking towards more difficult rock climbing that laid ahead, when I took an unexpected fall, ripping my right shoulder out of its socket. After performing backcountry first aid, my friends heroically carried me over mountainous terrain, to the hospital, where the emergency room doctor sedated me and re-set my shoulder. The ligaments in my shoulder were torn in two, necessitating a two to six month recovery time, during which rock climbing—or any physical activity involving my upper body—is strictly off limits.

I cried when I heard the news. How was a fall on such easy terrain possible? To be blunt, I barely fell rock climbing—I essentially tripped while hiking up a steep hill. More importantly, how was I to survive a semester without climbing? Not only is rock climbing what I do but it is who I am. What do non-climbers do on the weekend? I haven’t known since age six and, frankly, I don’t remember.

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It was fifteen years ago when I discovered rock climbing, back in the days of play-dates and juice-boxes. As a 21-year-old junior in college, the world of my six-year-old self seems foreign: My world today involves dates, not play-dates, and the boxed juice has been replaced by boxed wine. Rock-climbing has helped me grow, grown with me, and provide the lens through which I understand the world.

Yet my passion for climbing and my desire to climb to my potential has certainly involved sacrifices over the years. As many readers will relate, the sheer quantity of time devoted to my passion has precluded involvement in other activities and the discovery of other sides of myself. It has been fifteen years since I have asked myself how I wanted to spend my weekend, fifteen years since I have looked in the mirror and decided to devote myself to something new. I expect the next months of my life to be extremely frustrating, a bit terrifying, and yet extremely exciting.

Join me if you would like—take a break from that cause you’ve been passionate about forever, take a few months off the sport you have loved since you could walk. We’ll be back in a semester, in full force, with a vengeance. We might even be back fuller, more complete versions of ourselves, having discovered sides of our lives we never gave ourselves the opportunity to explore. And, who knows, maybe I’ll see you at Rush Hour! (And I won’t leave at nine).

Eli M. Stein, ’13 is an applied math concentrator in Winthrop House.

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