Making space for slowness

By Emily Thompson

It’s the easiest small talk to resort to on campus: how much work do you have, how much sleep are you getting, how stressed are you? Before lunch, you’ve had at least half a dozen conversations about how much work everyone has, and because of this repetition and constant comparison, you probably start to identify as an overachiever, someone who bites off just enough to chew. After all, everyone else is doing it.

And then, on the edge of burnout, when we’re ready to accept that it’s time for a break, we feel this twinge in our guts that tells us whatever we’re doing must still in some way be productive, impressive or aesthetic. Before, I’ve found it easy to believe that this is just what a high-performance culture entails. Maybe there is no other way to surround yourself with highly motivated individuals while receiving some of the best education and experiences that the world has to offer. 

It took leaving Midd for me to discover that this isn’t true.

I took this fall semester off, spending time organizing in anticipation of the presidential election. I had thought taking a semester off would be a surefire way of burning out; previously, when I engaged in organizing work during the academic year and on breaks, I had loved it but it also exhausted me.

But this time, things have been different. I no longer had those panicky conversations about being overwhelmed that make my cortisol levels skyrocket, I didn’t drink four cups of coffee a day anymore, and I didn’t go out on Saturday nights anymore just because I felt like I was supposed to. This time last year, I was at rock-bottom — anxious, depressed, stuck. Now, every day is a gift. Days just flow in and out of each other, and I can breathe.

Here in my family’s little bubble in the Philadelphia suburbs, all four of us have found a slowness we haven’t before. We don’t set alarms but instead get to work when we feel well-rested. We cancel meetings and commitments when we’re sick — mentally or physically. We snatch snippets and hours of time from each other throughout the day for planning, cuddling with our puppy or taking time to be present with each other. I even have time to explore sustainable living, classic and modern literature, and creative writing.

This doesn’t mean that we aren’t “productive.” My mother is healing herself from a spinal surgery that leaves her with chronic pain two years later. My dad is figuring out how to distribute pediatric vaccines all over the world. My trans sister works at a rock climbing gym and is taking the year to find herself during her transition. And I was working with Sunrise activists in Vermont and Pennsylvania to win the 2020 election; preserve its integrity; and fight for climate, racial, and social justice.

Sarah Fagan

I believe it’s possible to find the balance between slowness and productivity at Midd because I don’t think they’re actually antithetical. Most of us are here because we love learning, not because we love all-nighters. After the past nine months, I still want that intellectual stimulation, and I’m sure many of you do, too. But we can have that without the constant need to compare, perform or over-achieve. And when we do rest, maybe no one else notices it, but maybe at the end of the day, we’ve grown more and fallen in love with our lives just a bit more. My days during Covid-19 honestly would seem pretty boring to my former self, but I know I wouldn’t go back.

We need to change Midd’s culture so that we can all find the slowness, rest and acceptance we need. Like all societal changes, slowness at Middlebury must come from all levels. As students, this could mean making space for ourselves instead of always prioritizing our grades, whether that be cooking a meal with friends, meditating or calling loved ones. This also looks like changing the conversations we have in dining halls, classrooms and offices so that work is not our primary focus. For professors, this looks like restructuring syllabi so students have more time to soak in material and hold onto it years from now. And institutionally, Middlebury could begin to identify as a school where we value the depth and richness of higher education — not chaos, overwhelm and burnout.

As this year comes to a close, a fear of returning to Midd dwells in the back of my mind: a fear of failure, of burnout, of not being able to relate to the grind culture or the culture of performative leisure anymore. But I know I’m not the only person who holds mixed feelings about their lifestyles at Midd. So please, share your pockets of slowness with each other. Be gentle and generous with one another. I hope you all find stillness and rest throughout the holidays.

Emily Thompson is a member of the class of 2023.