Throughout my first year at Princeton, I’ve felt haunted by a specter of inadequate productivity. More so than in high school, at Princeton I could look in any direction and see people doing amazing things: artists, actors, athletes, writers, up and coming politicians, and singers all pursuing what they love while I sat around in my room, failing to make full use of each available second. Failing to distinguish myself. So, around the middle of February, I decided to start living what I perceived to be The Princeton Life: reading hundreds of pages a night for HUM in time for lecture and precept, powering through nightly language assignments, handling other academic obstacles, hitting the gym every other day, sleeping four to five hours a night, and subsisting principally on caffeine pills and coffee. By the end of the second week, I collapsed. My no-holds-barred assault on the Princeton curriculum left my body susceptible to an errant stomach bug, and the moment I woke up that Sunday, I knew something was off. I lost that entire day in a haze of illness, as my body essentially forced me to catch up on the sleep I’d been depriving it. Upon waking the next day, not only had the haze of the past few days cleared, but so had a deeper fog into which I’d fallen during the prior months. As I sat at my desk that Monday night, forging through a Greek translation, it felt as though the brakes lifted off my mind.
In a sudden flash of mental clarity, I realized that for the past year of my life, or perhaps longer, nearly every academic thought I’d had was merely a re-contextualized version of some fragment of an assigned reading. I had been thinking the thoughts of others. It occurred to me that, for as long as I’d been at Princeton, I’d been in read-only mode- in absorbing as much information as I could, I’d forgotten to process properly, to think. I’d contented myself with compiling, with accumulating as many bits of information as I could, without actually addressing any of the ideas myself, without producing any original thought. Going down such a path could lead, at best, to a career as some underwhelming literary critic, or so ran my thoughts at the time. I realized I was becoming less a person than an encyclopedia, full of the thoughts of others.
So I stood up, left my Greek assignment for the time being, and stepped out into the chill of the night. In the damp, midnight air, sweet with the scent of impending spring, I wandered over to Blair Arch, and, staring up at the imposing clock face, I suddenly succumbed to a clichéd moment of revelation: I was at Princeton. I was tired, I still felt a little sick after the events of the day beforehand, but I was at Princeton. In that moment of awe, the pain of the past two weeks seemed absurd, like self-inflicted torture. I stared up at the arch, letting my mind run wild, thoughts of the past merging with those of the present until I saw Princeton Sam as the current culmination of all that I had been, and as a building block for the Sam that will be. I felt as though I’d tapped into the deeper narrative of my own life.
Since then, of course, that sense of thrill has again faded as I find myself in the midst of papers, readings, and the general academic press of spring semester. My mind isn’t regularly churning to the degree it did that night or over the next few days, as I tackled long-suppressed philosophical questions, and my rediscovered cognitive capacity has subsided as I again slip into acquisitive mode, absorbing rather than analyzing. But the possibility remains, and as the year comes to an end, I can’t help but hope that in the years ahead I’ll return to the clarity of that night, and emerge from this place as a person rather than a compendium. Given the breakneck pace at which we cover material here, it has become evident to me that time to process and to make sense of it all must be made, as it will not be given. And without making that time, without letting my brain run free with what it’s received, that sense of clarity will never return, and I’ll muddle through my remaining years here in a haze of acquisition, no more than the sum of information within.
2 thoughts on “The Princeton Life”
sounds like you tried acid for the first time & couldn’t say it w/o incriminating yourself but you still wanted to write something…
I truly commend you on this piece Sam. When I was an undergraduate student, like yourself, I had the privilege of doing dance and molecular biology. I think the dance gave me a chance to reflect on what I was actively learning in the lab and the precept. At times, dance was my escape. When I found out that I need not escape my frustrations with the science I was learning or struggling to learn, I leveraged my dance experience even more as a way of sifting to the core of what I wanted. It was then that I discovered I was interested in the well-being of people and that science would be my method, since I loved it. Here I am now, six years later doing my Masters in Public Health. I think you should also let yourself be a tad more kind to yourself. You are there to learn first of all, the reflection will come during the thesis