Do you ever feel like you’re on an episode of the Truman Show? Following a rigid, agonizingly repetitive script that you aren’t sure you wrote? Like, Eisgruber is secretly some major Hollywood producer and there's an entire audience at home, sick sociopaths filled with joy while watching the pain of your struggling to hand in your paper on time? Ever feel like you’re not really alone as you pull that all-nighter? Perhaps you’ve experienced some form of existential dread while walking from your dorm to Frist, feeling glued to the pressures of student life? If you answered yes to any of these questions, welcome to the abyss of routine.
The first day of college is the first day of the rest of your life. At least, that’s what I thought when I first stepped foot onto Princeton’s campus and saw it through pure, untouched (read: naive?) freshman eyes. Despite getting lost almost every day for the first few weeks of class, the promise of coming across a never before seen building, a shortcut, or a new shop on Nassau always came with a spark of excitement. The spark, however, seems to fade sometimes. Hours turn into days, days into weeks, weeks into months, and look — it’s halfway into spring semester. I don’t know when the gleam of the gold started to disappear and the sparkle dimmed, but they did. But why?
I start every day the same: early and accompanied by the overwhelming sense of gravity pulling me into bed. I use the same face wash, toothpaste, and morning playlist that I've used since September. Next, the pre-class omelet from Whitman (without fail, three eggs, broccoli, and cheese). I attend my classes, break for lunch, and then head down to the boathouse for practice. And then the next day, the script starts anew.
It's easy to feel stuck on this campus, in class, and even in the dining halls. Often, the best way to deal with stress is to hunker down into some kind of a routine. This keeps me on track with my normal behaviors and responsibilities and creates a habit of strong work ethic. We all have our favorite libraries, dining halls, coffee shops… but this is really an insidious mindset. We get comfortable, muscle memory develops, and before we know it, we find ourselves mind-numbingly stumbling into Firestone, full from the same meal we’ve ordered at late meal three times that week. And it is only Wednesday.
The problem may also have to do with the universal lack of free time. And I’m not talking about the scheduled “free time” that I try to fit into my schedules for naps or study breaks. I’m talking about the moments that come with a sense of spontaneity. While it may feel as though I am seeing the same things every day, listening to the same music, and drinking the same coffee, perhaps the spark can be renewed by keeping an eye on the present and looking into the negative spaces. The other day at practice, in the middle of a long (and somewhat mind-numbing) workout, a hawk flew over the hull of the boat. This gigantic bird who, like me, claims Lake Carnegie as its home, had interrupted the steady flow of my daily practice routine. This hawk, probably like plenty of other secrets on campus, has been a part of my routine, my script, but has been overlooked.
Perhaps the secret to breaking the abysmal feeling of routine and the rereading of the script is to stay present. Rather than focusing on the fastest, most efficient route from Frick to the Friend Center, I’ve started to keep my head up more and look for the small sparks — a father walking around with his toddler daughter, bundled up head to toe in various brightly colored winter items that she clearly picked out herself, or even the rare sighting of a puppy walking around with its owner, excited by each noise and movement that it notices.
What I have come to find over these last demanding six months is that routine kills our sense of purpose. Living becomes doing, and we forget why we are here. We forget what drew us to Princeton in the first place. We lose sight of the shine that its gates first gave us. With so many different things going on in the life of a Princeton student, whether it be a club, a sport, or a dance group, it is absolutely imperative that we take a step back from the comfort of routine (some might call it a rut), and find a new approach to going through the day. And when that one starts to drag you down, find another. And another. If we let routine take over natural instinct, then we let it take over the creativity and the originality of our lives.
Paige Cleary is a first-year from Darien, Conn. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.