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Back in August, I trudged onto campus with a backpack that was bigger than I was and with enough worries to fill it. Yet when I returned from my First-Year Outdoor Program trip a week later, I no longer felt lost and uncertain. I was ready to handle any challenge Harvard threw at me.
Now it’s early March. It’s cold outside, I’m behind on my coursework, and my job applications have been trickling back in the form of we-regret-to-inform-you letters. I have lost my FOP self. Every day, my roommates and I return to our suite and pile our coats, hats, and complaints on the couch. “This routine sucks.” “I’ll be happy when it gets a little warmer.”
Regardless of the month, there’s always a routine. But there was a time when the conditions around me didn’t preclude my happiness.
At my last FOP reunion, my leaders presented our group with a surprise: The letters we had written to our future selves during our trip up the Appalachian Trail.
Immediately, I was hit with the memories that were made alongside that letter. I had just gotten back from a quick trip to the emergency room for knee and ankle injuries. All of our clothing and gear had been completely soaked in a storm, and several of us were huddled under a tarp at our makeshift campsite. But we were a happy sort of tired. We laughed while we wrote.
So in the middle of Leverett Dining Hall, I looked down at my pen-stained note and read what I had hoped to take with me to Harvard:
1.“Stay positive when you and the people around you are struggling. Optimism is more powerful and inspiring than cynicism; remember the hike up Mount Cube.”
For the last half of that trek, I was angry. I was annoyed at the rocks I kept tripping over, annoyed at my obligation to finish the trail, and annoyed at myself. I remember hoping that someone would corroborate my sour mentality and give us an excuse to give up. I would have latched onto the smallest shred of negativity.
But no one gave one. Everyone kept breathing heavily and talking up the mountain. When we made it to the summit, I was confident that I would not be there if it weren’t for the optimism around me—so eventually I embraced it.
I can’t help but realize that my summit self did not make it to my second semester at Harvard. By whining so frequently about my essays and applications, am I keeping my friends from reaching their highest peaks? Maybe this habit of commiserating with one another simply breeds more misery.
2. “It’ll all work out. Knowing that and staying calm will keep you and those who love you happier than if you excessively worry.”
Being sad when you’re sad is normal and healthy. Lamenting every small life puzzle or problem is not. There will be a summit and then another mountain. On FOP, you take them in stride. The night in the pouring rain where you don’t reach your campsite and you’re tied to a tree (true story) will end. Your clothes will dry in the morning. You’ll get that p-set in on time, and then there will be another one.
At Harvard, it’s not too hard to keep these lessons in mind for a month or two, but soon, the woods get farther away. Memories of resilience are replaced with fears of punch season. Judgment-free zones are easily forgotten when your best friend is welcomed into a club that did not want you. Your blockmates will probably not chant, “I like myself., I’m worth a lot,” with you as you climb Widener steps.
So how do we bring our FOP selves all the way to March? I think the answer lies in a simple but brilliant piece of trail advice that I stole from my leader, Hannah.
3. “Know your brain space, and fill it with what you want to.”
So even in the dead of winter, when powdered hummus and headlamps are the last things on our minds (or even if they’ve never been on your mind), let’s be conscious about what we allow to fill our brain space. Let’s quit competing for who has too much work, be at peace with the knowledge that we will complete all of our tasks, and clear the winter clutter from our brain space. Leave room for FOP.
Rachel C. Talamo ’18, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Weld Hall.
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