Some days feel like they’re supposed to be joke. Today, the 29th of October, is a great example.
This morning, I realized that my bike had disappeared from our bike cellar. While waiting at the police station to report the theft, I read on the news that three people had been stabbed in Nice. Only an event of such magnitude could crush the endless stream of articles about the lockdown starting from tomorrow in France. When we watched the French president’s announcement in our kitchen yesterday, I wasn’t aware that these crazy 24 hours were just about to start. Is this still reality?
Writing these lines, I am sitting in the French national library for the last time before my room will replace it for at least a month. My room, that I’ve moved in less than two months ago. In such a short period of time, so many things have happened, so much has changed in my life. The accumulation of intercultural experience, language, new studies and new people is overwhelming. But before today, I haven’t fully realized that it was.
My body is unsure how to react. “Should I cry now? Or dance? Or scream? Or laugh?” Luckily, he decides to calm down. One breath in, another breath out. Some kind of smile returns to my face. Silently at first, but with increasing confidence, a tiny voice in the back of my head starts to speak: Don’t take life too seriously, Jakob. After all, it’s just a game. You might as well enjoy it.
The difference to a semester abroad
Exactly a year ago, this same voice was much more dominant in my life. After all, I was abroad, in the United States, having a total blast. Instead of worrying too much about university, I was playing volleyball and training for speech tournaments. In two days from now, we would celebrate Halloween in a fraternity house, partying hard in the middle of the week and getting drunk with underaged freshmen.
There is little to lose during a semester abroad. Almost every bad decision you make will only have consequences for the next three months. This special kind of freedom enables many people to let themselves go, to enjoy their student life and try out stupid things. Not that I would ever do stupid things of course… Needless to say though that I have many magical memories of that period.
Now, I am abroad again, but this time feels much more serious. I can’t just go back to Munich in January and only transfer the good grades to my transcript. The relationships I build in Paris could be essential for my whole life in case I decide to stay after my Master’s. What about my reputation? My image among fellow students? The pressure is on. It’s the pressure of “being an adult” and taking things seriously. All the stuff that didn’t exist back in Chicago. But, in fact, does it exist here in Paris? It seems like many of my anxieties are actually unjustified.
The fake pressure
The more I think about the difference between Paris and Chicago, the difference between exchange and full studies, the less rational it seems to put the two in distinct boxes. Firstly, because both are very legitimate abroad experiences which I cherish and enjoy – independently of my study program. Secondly, it doesn’t matter how long we stay in a place to be a blank page at the beginning, having nothing but opportunities to win in terms of reputation and relationships. Finally, and most importantly, things worked out pretty well in my semester abroad: I found great friends, did well at university and acquired some useful skills along the way. Not worrying too much about the outcome made me benefit much more from the experience last year.
I call this phenomenon the paradox of taking life seriously. While the goal of seriousness is most often to be successful in our endeavors, it might have the opposite effect, restricting our creative energy and our natural intuition that would in fact lead us to that success. Coronavirus lockdowns yield great examples: Some people take the crisis very seriously. They are scared and angry in their homes, knowing virus infection numbers by heart and talking only about the end of this catastrophe. Others, however, despite being locked into their room like everyone else, start getting creative from day one, founding online clubs or embracing a new sports routine. They see the situation as a game they can only benefit from.
Even without any crises, it’s often helpful to see life as a game that we might as well enjoy playing. A priori, this abstraction is a defence mechanism – just like the calming voice in my head that keeps me from going crazy in the library. It defends us from our own fake pressure, from telling ourselves negative stories about our worlds. Seeing life more as a game protects us from overreacting to events outside of our control, like bikes being stolen or restaurants being closed. When seeing Emmanuel announce new rules on TV, we can either get desperate or embrace the circumstances and play with them as best we can. It should be an easy choice in such situations.
Finding the right balance
Clearly, there is a thin boundary between taking things too seriously and taking them too easy. Depending on our current situation, we can fluctuate quite strongly between the two. During our semesters abroad, we might drink too much one night and lose our wallet in an Uber. Then, back at our home university, we may work too much and lose our ability to have fun studying our subject midway through the semester. One day, we procrastinate because we don’t care enough, and the next day, we procrastinate because we put too much pressure on ourselves.
Making an abroad university your home university looks like the perfect hack to escape this problem, right? In some way, you’re abroad playing the enjoyable game, while in some other way, you act responsibly because it’s your “real” university now. Two months into that exact experience, I must unfortunately admit that it’s not that simple. There’s a constant fluctuation between playfulness and seriousness, just like an intercultural experience may be exciting in the morning and overwhelming in the afternoon.
In the end, I guess there is no perfect balance to be found. Taking things seriously is important to give our actions a sense of purpose while seeing life as a game substracts the worries and adds some fun. Probably, it’s best to play, but also make some effort to play well and get better, whichever rules the sanitary crisis imposes on us.