The past month or so has been especially challenging for me. I was trying to deal with university, a relationship, and all sorts of extra-curricular activities, and my anxiety and depression were acting up. Eventually I collapsed under all that stress, and could not cope anymore. I had to let go of a lot of things: things I cherished but had no more energy for, and things that just weren’t working out anymore. The stress became too much and I just could not handle it anymore.
I am currently on holidays, resting and not taking on any responsibilities temporarily so I can recuperate. As I flick through sites online (my idea of relaxation), I come across plenty of articles from young people worried about exams, worried about their chances at getting into a university. It’s the season to get “serious” about exams, and the season for college admissions in many places in the world.
I found an interesting contrast. In Malaysia (and many other Asian countries), students are advised to concentrate wholly on studying. Extra-curriculars, jobs, and anything that is not academically-related falls to the wayside as all their focus goes on their books. In the US and Canada, though, extra-curriculars are given extra importance: everywhere students are asking which clubs to join, how to get leadership positions, how many volunteering hours to give per week. This is juggled on top of their jobs (common with students there) and with academics.
Though one group is solely academic and the other more varied, they’re both very busy. The Malaysian spends all morning in school, then goes for tuition classes, then hours of homework, with a Straight As Seminar and possibly a piano lesson during the weekend. The American has hockey practice in the morning, then all-day school, then a waitressing shift at a cafe, then more tutoring, Forensics, and volunteering at the homeless shelter on weekends, with homework as well. This does not even include family obligations – siblings to take care of, chores to do around the house.
There is hardly any time in all that for either person to rest, recuperate, or even take care of their basic needs – it’d be surprising if they could sleep! There is hardly any time for themselves.
What happens when students don’t get time to themselves? Damage.
Running on empty trying to fulfil every obligation, while lacking in rest and nutrition, will only lead to exhaustion. Illnesses prop us because the body is too weak to defend itself; they get worse when students decide to ignore them in favour of work. The brain gets tired and can’t process information optimally anymore. This leads to a decline in mental health – stress is a strong trigger for various depression and anxiety disorders.
The students suffer psychologically too. They are unable to enjoy their scholarly (or otherwise) pursuits; instead it all becomes work – a chore, something to be done instead of enjoyed. Not much is gained from the experiences: all that knowledge crammed in those nights disappears after the exams, and the different experiences gained during sports training or volunteering don’t get processed. Friends become competitors and enemies; mates pit themselves against each other, wanting to outdo the others. Everything else is left for later gratification, “suffer first, celebrate later” – but that gratification never comes as they pursue loftier goals. Things are being done for resume-padding, not for passion. Nothing is fun anymore.
The current traditional educational systems (whether Malaysian, American, or elsewhere) have not done much to take care of the students’ welfare and holistic health. A common edict in Malaysian schools is that no matter how ill you are, you still have to come to school – and if you’re bedridden you just have to study in bed. Colleges and universities become more competitive, leading students to push themselves to cram as many As and clubs in their resume as possible. The Super Students – Straight As, acceptance into Ivies and Oxbridge, plays 10 instruments, millionaire philanthropists – get front-page headlines, while the student who scored a few Ds or the student with a GPA of 2 jumps off a building and gets maybe a paragraph. The ones who get all As but one B, or misses 0.07 GPA points in the pursuit of being valedictorian, freak out and consider themselves doomed failures – with some teachers and parents reinforcing that view.
This is madness!
Students are not machines. Even machines need to be turned off once in a while, need to be recalibrated, need to be oiled. What more their bodies, minds, and souls! They need to take care of their needs too. They have very basic needs of nutrition, food, shelter, and love – those need to be fulfilled. We need to get away from thinking about what the students can do, and start thinking about how the students are.
In this blog I often highlight various opportunities for youths, as well as young people making significant differences in the world. Some of the young people I profile are particularly driven; the sort to take on a million projects at once. A lot of the projects I link to do require significant work – crafting a worthy proposal, working on a communal project. While I do encourage young people to take on those opportunities and make examples of those youth, I strongly urge everyone to think about yourself too.
You don’t have to do everything now. You don’t have to prove yourself to anyone. You are allowed to take breaks. You are allowed to delay, to take a rest. You are allowed to go at your own pace, to be as slow or fast as you want. You are allowed to do something mindless, something that doesn’t add anything to your transcript or resume but is enjoyable anyway. You are allowed to have passion. You are allowed to have fun.
(It’s a sad world when people need to be given permission to have fun.)
There are young people in the world, such as myself, who are just naturally driven – we take up almost every opportunity give to us, we do a lot in a small space of time, we try to do everything. While the dedication and drive is admirable, it isn’t always healthy. Without taking consideration for ourselves and our state of being, we’ll only end up crashing. Medication, hospital stays, and nervous breakdowns later, I am still trying to learn this.
For those folk who consider themselves driven, who dive into studies or volunteer 24/7 because they want to: keep up the spirit, but keep up yourself too. If you give yourself to everything, but don’t give anything to yourself, eventually you will have nothing to give anymore. You don’t have to sign up for everything. See if it fits into your schedule, think about whether you can truly commit to it or not. What’s the point in taking up so much if you can’t do your best in any of them? If you miss an opportunity, do not fret; as long as the world turns, there will still be chances.
You are not a failure if you only got one B. You are not worthless if you don’t have a leadership position in school. You are not lazy if you decide to take a day (or a week or a month) off school to reenergize and rest. You are not evil if you turn something down. It’s okay. Life still goes on.
Let’s all have some consideration for ourselves. We can’t just spend our time working. Let’s get some rest too.
Now get up from the computer, lie on your couch, and have a cup of tea. You deserve a break.