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Tension

I sat in the library thinking, “How will it all get done?” This is anxiety. Maybe you’ve experienced it. It starts low like the bubbles of boiling water at the bottom of a pot, burning slowly near the heart; bubble by bubble, it begins to rise. How are you? Bubble. So much work? Bubble. No sleep? Bubble. It’s studying, writing papers, getting great grades, participating in multiple extracurricular activities, making and being friends, preparing for a career or grad school or both, being a leader, growing up, being accepted, having convictions, yet still fitting in, and so on.

Surviving the anxiety requires morphing into a certain kind of addict—not the kind that uses drugs and alcohol to mask a deep emotional malfunction but rather, the Google calendar addict. I’m talking about the spreadsheet sidekick seekers. I’m talking about an addiction, not in dark corners, but one accepted in the broad daylight of our campus and sometimes even celebrated.

I’m talking about the balance addict. I’m talking about me.

This addiction is the need for everything in our lives to go smoothly and as planned, according to a certain color-coded scheme. Some call it the work-life balance. It’s the thought that everyone needs to have a little bit of this and a little bit of that and then it will all be perfect and there will be success and happiness with family, friends, money, and accolades. And all these things will hang beautifully in balance.

I don’t think the addiction is to plans or goal setting. Instead, we are addicted to the notion that everything will work out perfectly if it’s planned correctly. We want everything to fit, because we want to do everything. That is the addiction. I am not just a student or a musician or a girlfriend or a daughter or a sister or a writer or a Netflix devotee; I am all of these things, and I want to be all of these things.

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When things start to clash, I instinctively search for ways to balance everything. I look for the articles that will tell me I need to eliminate things from my life. But I don’t know how helpful these bits of advice actually are. Sure, if I decided to just be a student or just a musician, maybe my life would be a more balanced. Maybe it would be easier to make everything go together seamlessly. But I have a feeling it would also be a whole lot less satisfying.

Moreover, getting rid of the things that make my life full doesn’t ensure an easier, smoother life. Because being human means there is a real chance of getting “quadded.” Or your brother calls because he’s in trouble and needs your help and three hours later you’re still on the phone and your problem set is incomplete. Or your flight is canceled because of a blizzard. Or you miss too many Crimson Editorial Board meetings, or you don’t practice your instrument for long enough. Or perhaps, you and your roommate waste thirty minutes in the empty reading room just laughing.

These mini-failures and time drainers can seem frustrating. They get in the way of the goals, the schedule. They place themselves naturally in the rhythm of our lives. They are the intervention to the balance addiction. And when they intervene, we feel the need to look at our calendar once more, because the bubbles are rising again and we are off balance.

I’ve heard many people say that the fullness and madness of Harvard life is what makes being here so great. This place is full of people who do amazing things, people who do everything. Maybe a new perspective within that madness is needed—one that fully acknowledges the push and pull of daily life and in so doing, is better able to see its beauty. It could help us focus less on to-do lists and more on being prepared and present people. It won’t get rid of the anxiety, but might enable us to be more at ease within the anxiety. Sometimes, no Google calendar can help. We must shift, adapt, and breathe in the tension, because that is the reality of life.

So when your brother calls and you talk to him for hours, you’ll know it was better than getting a head start on the problem set. When the shuttle runs late, you know there’s nothing you can do or improve with worry; you just do the next right thing. And when you sit in the library and think, “How will it all get done?” you know that somehow, some way it can get done.

The refrain of one of my favorite songs goes, “Tension is to be loved when it is like a passing note to a beautiful, beautiful chord.” I don’t want to seek the allusion of finding balance anymore: It can’t be found. It doesn’t work that way. But I do want to learn how to live well in the tension. Maybe somewhere in the bubbles, a truly beautiful harmony is waiting to emerge.

Brynn A. Elliott ’18, a Crimson editorial writer, is a Philosophy concentrator living in Currier House.

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