t was the ideal getaway: a tropical island beach, fruity drink in one hand, book in the other, reading a novel about love, revenge and cheese. The only thing missing was a foot massage from a shirtless exotic man. With each passing day of sandy pleasure, however, a latent anxiety began to creep into my consciousness. It started before bed one night, whispering fears of unsent emails and unread inboxes. Then, feeling bolder, the anxiety moved to the daytime, reminding me at the ice cream shop: Time to balance your bank account. Remember, you still have no money.
At first, I brushed off these thoughts as silly intruders, but before long, they became overwhelming. I must be behind on everything, I concluded in a state of growing fear. Realizing this on my vacation, of course, only served to further my anxiety. I became hypochondrical, feeling physically unwell due to anxiety, but attributed the symptoms to an undiscovered deadly tropical disease that I had undoubtedly contracted.
It was then that my exotic cheese book, The Telling Room, sent me a sign. Like me, the narrator and author, Michael Paterniti, stressed over deadlines, workloads, all-nighters and parenting (perhaps not exactly like me). In running away to Spain, he discovered a hidden town, the story of a famous cheese creator and salvation.
Paterniti envied the cheese creator’s dedication to the present. He admired his vivacity and rich family history. He admired his ability to stroll, talk for eight hours straight and drink copious amounts of homemade wine. One of his observations sums up the difference between the two men: “He [the cheese creator] was webbed to the here and now, sunk into it, while I seemed to spend a great deal of time racing through airports, a processed cream-cheese bagel in hand, trying to reach the future.”
Victory! I found it: my anxieties perfectly contained in a sentence about bagels and airports. Paterniti’s sentiment is the American mentality: rooted in efficiency, planning and running frantically toward an uncertain future.
Here at Rice, we spend a great deal of time and money planning our futures, and not without reason. We want a fulfilling job, the money to live on our own and the security to retire peacefully. Even the day-to-day things — the homework, the problem sets, the essays, the applications — in some way connect to our future aspirations. We happily slave away in Fondren, or drink 14 cups of coffee, if it means we are setting ourselves up for success.
But this mentality leaves no room for reflection or observation. Paterniti, after his first visit to the cheese creator, comes to this epiphany, standing in a field of sunflowers one early morning: “The impulse out in the sunflowers that early morning was to stay absolutely still for a moment, sucking in fresh air, immersed and drawn deep under by a powerful silence … I just allowed myself to register the feeling of existing there among the sunflowers.”
I realize that, as students, most of us do not have the opportunity to travel to Spain for a sunflower revelation, however urgent the need. Still, we can access stillness and appreciation. Sometimes, deep in the passion of working, I will surface for a moment and realize I have not been aware of myself or my surroundings for hours. For an instant, everything catches me by surprise: the color of the desk, the firmness of the chair, the alabaster necklace of my neighbor.
It’s so easy to get caught up in the future and anxieties about the present, and rightfully so. Students lead stressful lives, and sometimes there just aren’t enough hours in the day to finish the work, let alone reflect. That being said, I think the case for taking a moment to be still and conscious, even if it means simply sitting on a bench for 15 minutes and watching people pass by, is dire.
If we always look to the future, we will always be behind. There is no “getting ahead” when you plan for something that hasn’t happened yet. There will always be something to worry about, and although anxiety and work is a tempting concoction, it will ultimately only breed more stress.
A better escape is mindfulness. The smell of grass, the emptiness of the quad on a Sunday morning and the sight of rain through steamy windows of a dorm room are all effective medications. Each moment, although not quite as healing as an island getaway or a Spanish adventure, provides the opportunity to unwind.