2022 was one of the hardest years I’ve ever been through. But it also forced me to pause, consider, and be still—to listen to the voice of God. And one thing that I repeatedly felt like He was telling me was to reflect on the unique relationship between the difficult, the painful, the miserable—and the good. We often think of them as separate—on opposite sides of some spectrum, even—but in reality they are closely intertwined and uniquely intimate.
One of the first things I discovered about college was that it requires of the new freshman a sudden “growing up.” All of a sudden, you—just you—have to be very accountable. You have to manage your own schedule, meals, and finances on top of navigating new and different situations and relationships. If you’re doing it right, it’s hard.
I knew all this going into my sophomore year. I was expecting to be able to handle everything with all the ease and experience of a college student who had a whopping one year under her belt. And yet something about the semester of college I just completed feels like it beat something out of me. The rigorous schedule and iron sense of self-discipline required of getting good grades at my college was exhausting enough as a freshman; as a sophomore, I felt even more keenly the pressure to succeed—something I almost didn’t think was possible until I found myself in the middle of dealing with it. As the semester hurtled to a close, I found myself yearning for rest. Just one day without reading. Just one weekend without mentally planning next week’s paper. Even now, as I write this, something in me shies away, whispering, No, no, no. We don’t want to do this.
But I have always been something of an overachiever: I have to do everything, and I have to do it well. It was precisely this fact that made my life this past semester extremely difficult. I remember telling my writing mentor during my first weekly tutorial how eager I was to be back, to have returned to his strange little college despite half my freshman cohort transferring elsewhere, despite a strict new policy ruling that any missed discussion demanded a 1000 word make-up essay. I wanted him to know how resilient in the face of adversity—their adversity—I was. How I would never slack or sleep in or forget to write my paper. I was going to do it all. And I desperately wanted to make him proud.
Rather than impress him, I think my speech allowed my mentor to really see what kind of person I was. I was a student who worked hard and managed her time well and flourished under the praise of her professors. And while I truly did want to do well in college, not all of my reasons for that desire were entirely honorable. He already knew I was a good student; my grades were a testament to that. But what he also discerned was that I carried a sort of quiet pride that needed tempering, taming. I had yet to master the elusive trait of academic humility.
I do not think it unintentional that I got very few words of praise from him all throughout the semester.
Meanwhile, as I slaved under an overbearing workload all through the mornings and dutifully marched off to work in the afternoons, I found a new roadblock rising up to obstruct my perfectly-planned path. That roadblock was none other than my social life, and all the new stress, fear, and anxiety that came with it.
During my freshman year, I navigated a wave of new relationships, many of them of a different nature than I had experienced before. For one reason or another, I had to let go of many of those relationships as the spring semester came to a close. That was sad and disheartening for a while, but as glorious summer rose up to meet me, I was mostly able to forget my trouble. I felt happy, hopeful, and confident in who I was, in the relationships I had, and in God’s plan for my life.
But from the moment I moved into my dorm, all that confidence started to crack. The first blow came with the realization that my closest friend during freshman year—who also would have been my roommate—had decided to transfer. Other people who I had expected to return had also left. I was shocked to see how the community I had formed for myself last year had drastically dwindled. But the experience of moving in was still fresh, and there were new faces to meet, and college is fun, right? So I tried to be hopeful.
However, as the semester crawled by, I found myself increasingly disappointed with how my new life was unfolding. My intense workload, coupled with my unwillingness to sacrifice a good night’s sleep, prevented me from socializing much. I knew this contributed to my having a reputation of being somewhat elusive. This had been true in high school, too, and I had always been okay with it. But here, it was harder to swallow. The other girls in my dorm would often go out without me, and I was rarely invited along on impromptu adventures. I lay in bed at night, listening to my housemates giggling as they returned from a late-night boba run, and my heart hurt. They don’t want you, my doubt whispered. And gradually, I began to believe it.
It got worse. I tried to make more of a conscious effort to be social, but the nagging feeling in my mind saying that I could be doing something “more productive” prevented me from hanging out for too long. I always finished my reading, my papers, my assignments, but I knew it had come at the cost of valuable interaction with my peers. Which was more important? Every decision felt like the wrong decision. I longed for the presence of my almost-roommate, who had had similar study habits as I, so I wouldn’t feel like such an outsider. I wished I could move back home, freed from having to make this never-ending choice between two different kinds of flourishing, but knew I couldn’t. These concerns—among many others—surfaced and resurfaced in my ever-busy mind. I felt sick, weary, bitter at myself and at the world. What had happened to my life, my control? I felt like I was nearing my breaking point, when all the hundreds of balls I was juggling would come crashing down.
“Why is this so hard?” I repeatedly asked God through tears. A better question, my doubt added: Why didn’t anyone tell me it would be this hard?
At the time, I struggled to feel like God answered my desperate cries for help in any significant capacity. But I now credit those sentiments to my own willful pride and ignorance rather than a deficiency on God’s part. Now that that semester is behind me, I can better see how, indeed, He was answering my prayers every single day. Only He didn’t send me one giant solution; I think I’m beginning to understand that that’s usually not how God works. Instead, He granted me small blessings, moments of kindness and peace—mundane, yet precious.
When I wasn’t dwelling on the relationships I lost, I found that other relationships were being strengthened. I spent much of this semester talking to students I barely spent any time with last year, and I am now closer with my discussion cohort than ever before. My relationships with many of my professors also improved, and I eagerly look forward to the day when—God willing—I can call them not just mentors, but friends as well. My job working with the under school also allowed me to get to know many wonderful kids, which has been an enormous blessing—not just because it’s good for me to be around them, but because I know I share a certain camaraderie with them. Despite our age differences, our shared desire for virtue, wisdom, and joy means that, in a way, we are cut from the same cloth. And that makes me strangely happy.
I also know that in my loneliness, God was teaching me, humbling me. When I felt a wave of heartache coming on, I trained myself to focus instead on prayer. On intentional joy. On the evening light coming in through my windows and the softness of my bed. And as I thanked God for my blessings, I felt some of my sadness and bitterness melt away. God also gave me the courage to talk about my struggles to some of my friends, which led to many wonderful conversations. Merely by their listening, their attention, they encouraged me to reject the whispers of my doubt. We do want you, their smiles, their hugs, their laughter told me. And so it was up to me to begin to believe it again.
When I was looking for a big, quick solution, God taught me to delight in small, slow things. Watching children play, their foam swords silhouetted against the sunset. My housemates singing upstairs. A free coffee from a kind parent. A song recommendation from my dad. A compliment. This lesson manifested itself in my studies, too. Whispering Coleridge’s poetry because the rhyme was so beautiful. Tracing the stars with Aratus in the middle of the Texas prairie. Silent, tea-fueled paper-writing mornings. Learning to use an astrolabe, that most ancient and magic of tools. What richness!
Good work is hard. I’d been hearing that from my professors since my very first day at college. But it wasn’t until this past year that I began to experience what that really meant. Some of the simplest things in life—the things you don’t expect to be hard—are in fact some of the hardest. Being a good student is hard. Being a good friend is hard. Being a Christian—no matter your tradition—is hard. I struggle with all of it, a lot. I think we all do, in our own way and time. But contrary to what t-shirts at Disney World might tell you, you can’t simply “stop adulting.” And—though it pains me to admit it—nor can you perfect it. We are meant to struggle. It’s natural. But the struggle is good because it is natural. Because it reminds us that we need God, and that He is there when we need Him. When we do good work, He will carry us through it. And when we prevail, it is by His grace.
Some might call my experience with 2022 a transition year. I think I would call it formative. A year of “unmaking,” as Nichole Nordeman said. There were many points during this year when I felt like I was at my lowest. Yet God lifted me back up. And He let me fall. And He lifted me back up again. And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.
The pathway is broken, and the signs are unclear And I don't know the reasons why You brought me here But just because You love me the way that You do I'm gonna walk through the valley If you want me to No, I'm not who I was when I took my first step And I'm clinging to the promise that You're not through with me Yet So if all of these trials bring me closer to You Then I will walk through the fire If You want me to It may not be the way I would have chosen When You lead me through a world that's not my home But You never said it would be easy You only said I'd never go alone So when the whole world turns against me And I'm all by myself And I can't hear You answer my cries for help I'll remember the suffering that Your love put you through And I will walk through the darkness If You want me to— “If You Want Me To” by Ginny Owens
One thought on “A year in reflection | 2022”
Hey Havalah! I’ve been meaning to reply to this for some time, but I just never got around to it until now. Last week was church singles camp (which was a very interesting experience—in Texas, actually!), and now I’m in Mesa visiting my sister and her family for the first time. But enough about me.
I’m very sorry you had to deal with such a difficult semester. I’ve dealt with trying to please people and falling short, so to some extent, I can relate to your former situation. It’s very frustrating when you put your all into something—your sense of significance and happiness—and it all comes to naught in spite of your efforts. Sometimes it’s like the world is rigged against you. It feels so unjust, so cruel.
I love that you eventually came to see how God was working in your life in the midst of the darkness you went through. It’s like you were in a room that was emptied of all its furnishings, all the things that granted it character and meaning, and it was then that you first noticed the golden sunlight streaming through the window and the motes of dust gliding through the silent air. Little blessings are always there, it’s just that sometimes we aren’t empty enough to see them.
Loneliness is sucky, too. I dislike it very much. But I’ve always been a loner, so it probably was more acute for you than it ever was for me. Actually, it’s gratifying to hear that someone has gone through similar struggles as myself. So thank you for being willing to be vulnerable in this regard and taking the time to write this up. It’s important to acknowledge that (nearly) all human experiences are universal. “You are not alone” is not a meaningless sentimental idiom. It’s very true, both in the horizontal sense and the vertical sense. I’m very glad that you were able to grow closer to some of your friends through this hardship. Please keep them around.
“We are meant to struggle. It’s natural. But the struggle is good because it is natural. Because it reminds us that we need God, and that He is there when we need Him. When we do good work, He will carry us through it. And when we prevail, it is by His grace.” This is exactly spot-on.
“My intense workload, coupled with my unwillingness to sacrifice a good night’s sleep, prevented me from socializing much.” I just thought this was so relatable. 🤣 Please don’t be like me this time around, though. Make time to socialize. Ask friends out for coffee or boba on a weekly basis. Be intentional. In recent times, I’ve realized that friendship, at least in this day and age of fast-paced American life, requires intentionality. You actually have to schedule time to foster friendship. Maybe you already know all this. This was just an epiphany for me that I thought might become something of an epiphany for you if I shared it. Only one way to find out, I guess. 😉
Please have a good semester this time around. I’ll be praying.