Reframing Summer

As summer kicks into high gear, it’s important to remember to live for ourselves.

By Annie Dhal

I have never loved summer. To me, this is the season of bugs and bug spray, distance from friends, sticky heat, and a boundless but furious anxiety that occupies me from the minute school lets out in early June well into September. It is not exactly that summer is *worse* than the other seasons but that at the very start of that final bell, I am briefly occupied by an all-encompassing hope for better things that is somehow sharper and brighter than ever before. And then, inevitably, I am let down.

This is not unusual. After all, summer boasts the longest period of daylight year-round. It offers freedom from oppressive cold, snow, and sleet (especially given our school’s climate) and instead presents ample sun, open waters—and, if you’re lucky, unencumbered free time to do as you please. Given all this, summer naturally becomes the season of making plans and having a blast, all to the overjoyed, sun-kissed soundtrack of Top 40 hits. But given this tapestry of all that summer should entail, it becomes far easier to tally all the ways your own life falls short. The consequence of this is a self-loathing that manifests and festers, not easily remedied. That being said, our outlook on life during these months between UChicago quarters—and perhaps even during our year at large—can be remodeled to center our own needs rather than the weight of blistering expectations.

This summer, I am here in Hyde Park, writing this piece four days late on my bed under a sinking sun. This whole day, I’ve done almost nothing but scroll from one end of the Internet to another. Ten minutes on Twitter, then to Instagram, then back to Twitter. I stop for a while to read an article in the New York Times and then again to watch three episodes of The Great British Baking Show. I would love to say that this is an aberration in my daily life, a slow day, some much-needed relaxation—but unfortunately for me, this quiet, unremarkable existence is par for the course. I will always feel that I fall short of everyone else. My Instagram feed is bright and dazzling, and my friends talk about their adventures with a glee that I can’t think to match. I wonder why I’m not sunning it up off the coast of Italy or interning in New York City—why my life seems to remain in a constant state of “nothing to write home about.”

The other side of this summer FOMO coin is pre-professional, rooted in the emerging fear of figuring out life after college. Summers are prime internship territory, and it is too easy to sink an hour on LinkedIn to learn who’s working as a teaching assistant or with the mayor or at Goldman Sachs, plotting some sort of massive corporate takeover. Upon analyzing an itemized, glossy list of your peers’ greatest successes and achievements, the urge to feel as though you yourself are not doing enough and falling behind can be almost immediate. A late switch in majors for me has set my career goals slightly behind, and I am more than a little clueless about the direction I want to take going forward. The future stretches in front of me like the edge of Lake Michigan, and I can hardly believe that I’m surrounded by people who seem to know themselves so precisely.

I am thinking all of this on my way back home. A break in my afternoon of lounging and regretting and procrastinating comes in the form of dinner with friends. I’m chewing on this self-hatred, on this thesis of dread, throughout our whole conversation. I’m wondering when it’ll make sense to me: my purpose for the quarter, for August, for what is supposed to be the prime of my life. And then, I notice from across the room, a girl has arrived. Perhaps a college student like me, perhaps not, but sitting alone nearby. I am struck, suddenly, with the realization that I have been her, many times over. By myself and worried about how I was being perceived. Presently, however, I hardly feel that she is unhappy. I look at the life she is living from this small, inconsequential window, and my immediate reaction is to pick out what I admire, what I wish I could emulate. I wonder, then, if I have been “the observed” some other time, the object of someone else’s envy. To look at life from this angle is to see that we are all simply existing in a web of experiences and each other’s perceptions.

What I mean to say is that there will always be someone outdoing you and then someone outdoing them. To compete with anyone other than yourself is to take arms against the whole world—an ultimately pointless and debasing battle. We can take great joy in the people we have in our lives and the things we get to do with them. We can remind ourselves that sometimes we only see the best in other people and the worst in ourselves.

Tonight, I will walk home, stomach full, and feel content. I will know that the world appears to me in one way and to everyone else in another, unique way. Where I am in my life is hardly anyone else’s business. Perhaps it is not even mine right now. I will type up this column, and in its original form, it will hardly be any good. I’ll feel bad about that for a few hours. I’ll go to bed. It will be a day lived, perhaps not to the fullest, but certainly lived.

Annie Dhal is a third-year in the College.