These three words describe a huge problem in the lives of students and young professionals—a problem that can transcend our younger years and haunt us decades into the future. How do you know whether you’re devoting the right amount of time to social activities, to-do lists, and personal health? Where do you draw the line when it comes to meeting deadlines and getting “me-time”?
During college, particularly, it’s easy to careen from one extreme to the other: from epicureanism to asceticism, from partying to study obsession. Here on the cusp of independence and adulthood, you discover your unique propensities, talents, and vices. You also quickly learn which temptations are most likely to pull you away from balance and wholeness.
For some students, college’s social attractions are impossible to ignore. Whether you prefer extracurricular activities—such as sports and clubs, for instance—or a school’s party culture, all such diversions and pastimes (which are good in moderation) can easily spin out of control. If you’re really social, you can easily exhaust yourself physically and emotionally, struggle to keep up with schoolwork, or neglect rest and necessary refocusing time.
Or maybe you fight the opposite extreme: you retreat into your shell, pore yourself into reading and studying, and neglect the other aspects of your being—spiritual, physical, communal—that are so important.
I struggled with both tendencies at college. During my first year, I studied sporadically and didn’t care about long-term fact retention or intellectual growth. My goal was to get “decent” grades, not to push myself toward excellence. I was studying for a good GPA, not for knowledge itself. Meanwhile, I often embraced spontaneity and fun activities to the detriment of sleep, exercise, and healthy activity. After joining a group of friends for midnight snacks and hangout time, I’d stagger back to my dorm and sleep in late. The next day I would “crash-study” for that day’s exam, committing dates and facts to short-term memory—only to forget them by the following week.
By the time summer break rolled around, I was exhausted and only decently happy with my grades and college experience. What was the point of an expensive education if I forgot everything post-graduation? Could I (and should I) keep up this exhausting cycle for four years?
The next three years involved a lot of schedule experimentation, as I strived to balance sleep, exercise, studying, and social time. I found both encouraging success and depressing failure over the course of those three years, as I sought to figure out what was best for body, soul, and mind. But looking back I’ve realized something incredibly important: that struggle with “life-work balance,” that battle to build virtue into my personal, intellectual, and physical life, is what college is all about.
Contrary to popular opinion, higher education is about more than a good GPA or the assurance of a job. Our collegiate careers ought to serve as a space in which we grow and mature our entire person: body, soul, and mind. You should be intentional about fostering balance and holistic growth throughout your time at school—not just because that balance will make you a better student, but also because it will serve as the foundation for the rest of your life.
An alumna of my college once told me that studying should be a selfless love—as the Greeks called it, agape: a self-sacrificial devotion. But if you’re like I was, you probably find that your studying passion is more like the Greeks’ eros: a temporal passion focused on the self and what it receives out of the studying relationship. You’re studying in order to get things: a 4.0 GPA or a high-paying job. You’re not studying for the sake of learning itself. You’re not particularly worried about becoming a lifelong learner or developing a long-term relationship with wisdom and knowledge. You’re just trying to get an A on tomorrow’s final.
But this attitude stunts the growth of the intellect. It tries to satiate our spirit with temporal pleasures—a decent grade on a hastily constructed essay or a needed check mark on our résumé, for instance—but prevents us from realizing deeper ones. Through agape learning, on the other hand, we discover new favorite authors and philosophers. We realize new inspiration and uncover new favorite subjects. We may even undergo the complete reversal of an intended life course through an encounter with profound and life-changing truth.
Learning for its own sake—delving deep into rich texts, purposing to give the proper time and attention to deep and important subjects—is vital to higher education. It takes your time at college from the realm of the consumptive and self-serving and transports it into the realm of the eternal and life-changing. Don’t let grades distract you from that.
Maybe you’ve heard: members of the Millennial and iGen generation are both struggling with loneliness and depression. That may seem ironic; after all, we have more ways to “connect” than ever before—via phones and computers and iPads, Instagram and Facebook and Snapchat (and more).
But connection is different from communion. Social media doesn’t always foster friendship. Amid our frenetic schedules and newsfeed-browsing, we can easily neglect our souls: their hunger for both companionship and solitude.
During college it’s easy to jump from class to class, dining hall to gym to coffee shop, without encountering others on a deeper level or developing relationships that will last. It’s easy to satisfy ourselves with weak ties and acquaintanceships, rather than working to build lasting friendships and finding real camaraderie. How do you take surface-level encounters and transform them into something lasting and permanent? How do you transcend small talk and fun parties and foster relationships that are deeper?
Associations and clubs are one way to combat this loneliness: associations outside college, like church, will enable you to foster relationships with older mentors, as well as with your peers. Those outside relationships are invaluable when dealing with the pressures and stresses of college, and can present a safe space and escape.
Book clubs, study groups, and sports practices can provide time to connect in smaller, more focused settings and to uncover kindred spirits. Real friendship will offer us joy, hope, and accountability amid the crazy activity and demands of school. What’s more, they can continue to provide a support group and network years (even decades) after our college careers are over.
But while we are social animals who crave community, as Aristotle pointed out so long ago, we are also thinking beings who need solitude and quiet. Even the most extroverted human should know how to be alone. Quiet spaces and times (away from social media and technology, whenever possible) enable us to recharge our hearts and heads. They help us address underlying stresses or discomforts we may be pushing away from our consciousness. They provide necessary space for brainstorming, daydreaming, and untangling messy thoughts or emotions.
It’s difficult to find the time and space at school. But it’s not impossible. As a runner, my exercise time presented an excellent opportunity to unplug and be alone. I tried to run without music or audiobooks most of the time, because I needed the quiet and solitude. Other friends sought out quiet haunts: a lonely dining-hall booth early in the morning, perhaps, or the hushed space of a stairwell. Some used the opportunity to call home, write letters, read a novel, journal, or study. Regardless, those spaces presented time to seek stillness—time we all need, whether we realize it or not.
So often we think of college as a cerebral space. And it is. But you are more than a floating brain: you have a body that needs care and attention. Dining halls offer pizza and soft-serve machines to (supposedly) curb your stress, and the strain of school deadlines can pressure you to spend the entirety of your four years in sedentary living. Beyond the jocks and exercise enthusiasts, a lot of students are tempted to leave personal health by the wayside in pursuit of what they see as the more important facets of college life: good grades and a good time.
But if you neglect your body at college, it will be hard to build good habits afterward. Speaking from experience, forty-hour workweeks and long commutes make it difficult to build new healthy habits. College, while an incredibly busy time, also has some built-in benefits (if you’re willing to take advantage of them): there’s often a free gym, ample opportunities for walking and biking, and available accountability partners.
During my sophomore year of college, an incredibly patient friend introduced me to running and coached me through the sludge of picking up a new exercise habit. Running became an incredible outlet for my stressed and introverted self. Our trail runs provided needed sunshine and vitamin D, as well as precious time away from the desk. I began to realize that my mood and focus were vastly improved every time I returned from a run. My grades rose, I slept better, and started paying more attention to the food I was putting in my body. By the time I graduated, running had become a deeply comforting outlet and had helped me form close friendships with other running buddies. Because I had already made it a habit, I managed to keep running throughout the ensuing seasons of my life: including forty-hour workweeks and three-hour daily commutes, pregnancy, and while caring for a young child. I admittedly run less (and slower) than I did in college, but my goal is to keep up the habit as a good in itself, not to achieve elite athlete status.
Running isn’t for everyone. I had friends who loved going on walks, biking, going to the gym, or playing tennis, soccer, basketball, or volleyball, or even doing some yoga or Pilates in their dorm rooms. They fit in exercise where they could—and found themselves refreshed by the practice. Again, the goal isn’t to become an Olympian or to achieve perfect fitness: the goal is to give your body the space it needs for health and wholeness. We aren’t brains on a stick. As Brother Francis of Norcia once noted, “The human person is body and spirit, not just a spirit.”
Don’t deceive yourself. Life-work balance isn’t going to get easier after college. Not everyone will get married straight out of college, and children may be far-off possibilities. But anyone working a full-time job and striving to build community will recognize the daunting challenges of life post-graduation.
Because of this, your time at school gives you a profoundly important opportunity to build the foundation for a post-college life: to cultivate the virtue and balance necessary to nourish your body, mind, and soul long after school is over.
You will not do everything perfectly or unearth the ideal life-work balance overnight. But that’s what college is for: growth, experimentation, and practice. Regardless of your graduating GPA or extracurricular achievements, that opportunity is worth all the time and work.
Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. She's written for The American Conservative, The Week, National Review, The Federalist, and The Washington Times, among others.
Photo by Thought Catalogue via Unsplash.
Complement with Russell Kirk on the purpose of a liberal arts education, Gracy Olmstead on why you should read literature (regardless of your major), and Jessica Hooten Wilson on the 10 books you need to read before graduation.
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