A trenchant moment

Trying to sort through a typical existential crisis at the U of C

By Matt Barnum

[img id=”76838″ align=”alignleft”] Everyone here knows the feeling.

Perhaps you have a Sosc paper due the next morning—you haven’t started, but that’s fine, you feel confident—and you walk into the Reg. You find your favorite spot, among those big chairs that look out the windows of the fourth floor. You settle down, take a sip of your coffee, and open up your laptop. First you check your e-mail. (Your messages are perky and upbeat in a way that is unhelpful: Someone you don’t know has added you on Facebook! Your old house—you’ve been too lazy to unsubscribe from its listhost—is hosting an apple-picking trip this weekend!) Then, promising yourself only for a couple minutes, you surf the Web for a bit: Facebook, a couple political blogs, The New York Times, ESPN.

Thirty minutes later, you think, Ugh. It’s already been 30 minutes. Time to get down to business.

You dredge up your barely-opened, $35 book that you’re supposed to write your paper on; you click over to a blank Word document, typing your name, the date, and the title of the class in the corner.

And then you look outside into the dark of the evening, it’s nearly midnight, and you think, I cannot do this anymore. I cannot write this paper. I simply cannot do it.

You think this matter-of-factly, but you can feel something in your stomach rising: a not-altogether-unfamiliar panic, a helplessness. It’s not just this paper, you think. It’s everything.

It’s waking up at 8:45 for your 9:30 physics lecture that you practically sleep through anyway.

It’s sitting through a discussion section where every class the T.A. asks—each time with less and less enthusiasm—“So, what did everyone think of the reading?” No one responds; the T.A. looks helplessly around. About a week, it seems, passes before someone finally raises his hand. Ah, yes. The same person as always.

It’s sitting in your literature class, as your classmates blithely dissect the hidden meaning—the homoeroticism, perhaps—in the assigned text. You read it, and you missed it. You could have read it a hundred times, and you still would have missed it. Or it’s going to your calculus class where people dutifully and deftly go up to the board to solve problems you simply cannot get your head around. In both cases, you think, I am not very smart.

It’s writing paper after paper that you don’t care about, always at the last minute. You hate every paper you write for class. You don’t even proof it—that’s how badly you don’t want to read what you’ve written. You want to append a note to it that says, Don’t judge me based on this. It is not me. This is not what I’m capable of. I can do better. Really. I can.

You are still sitting there in the Reg—your paper is still not written—and all these thoughts have occurred to you in a matter of a few seconds. Other people are around you, working purposefully and diligently, and you want to shout or scream or pound on the table. You’re having this wretchedly profound experience, and no one is noticing.

And what you do next, of course, is not scream or do anything to draw attention to yourself. What you do next is write your paper. Perhaps first you call a friend or you walk over to Bart Mart and grab a bag of Swedish Fish or another coffee or you leave the oppressive Reg. But then you write the paper.

You stay up quite late—maybe you skive off that 9:30 physics lecture—and you’re not proud of your work. But it reaches, after a little playing with font and margins, the length requirement. A week later, your professor hands it back: B+, Could have used more examples from the text, but overall, a trenchant analysis, he has written.

Trenchant. You’re not even sure what the word means, but you like the sound of it, and you like that it applies to you.

You are walking to your next class as you read over the comments on your paper. You feel first proud and then vaguely ashamed of your trickery. That’s what it was—trickery, cleverness, whatever you want to call it—it was not honest work, not really. You had not always paid close attention in class, had not participated, having only skimmed the reading. Your paper did not, as your professor had encouraged, “engage with the text.” This was not what you had come here to do. And yet, you still managed that B+, that trenchant.

You are in Cobb now, and as you take the elevator up to the fourth floor you’re still thinking about the paper. And then you go back to that moment in the Reg, when you were ready to give up. It feels at once sharp and distant. What did it mean? you wonder.

Was it a moment of weakness or of clarity? That—above all, above even your calc homework—is what you cannot get your head around.

Matt Barnum is a third-year in the College majoring in psychology. He is a Maroon Viewpoints editor.