Barnard College, New York, NY, USA
I hate making decisions because I always find myself imagining the alternative—the path I did not take. Even something as insignificant as picking an ice cream flavor is daunting. It reminds me of a discussion my English Colloquium class had recently about Erasmus and Luther’s Discourse on Free Will. Erasmus argues that free will exists, and that one is responsible for one’s own actions. Conversely, Luther claims that one’s choices are already predestined. At first, I was confused by Luther’s argument. He was a devout Christian, so his absolute faith in God makes sense. Yet, I was surprised that he would be willing to strip himself so fully of any agency over his own behavior. I attributed my confusion to an inability to understand the extent of his beliefs; as I read on, however, I came to a passage that I saw as the root cause of Luther’s argument. In a section titled “Personal comfort in the doctrine of bondage”, Luther says:
“I should not want free will to be given to me… nor anything else be left in my own hands to enable me to strive after my salvation”.
While Luther’s other claims were written boastfully, this statement showed a hint of his vulnerability. I am not religious, but I can relate to the feeling of wanting your choices to be in the hands of another; someone wise and all-knowing, who will make the right choice, or, at the very least, the wrong one so that you don’t have to.
Like everyone, my life has been defined by a series of choices that adults made I couldn’t talk or walk, nonetheless voice an opinion. At that age, I was living in a Columbia-owned apartment on the corner of 110th and Broadway. I remember almost nothing about that time, except for the tomatoes. Maybe it’s because they were displayed at my eye-level when my mom pushed me the bodegas in my stroller; all I know is that they were plump and shone in the summer sun. My dad taught at Columbia Business School, but he transferred to Harvard when I was four. The first move of my conscience life was to a turreted, yellow Victorian in a quiet suburb outside of Boston. We lived there for six years, until we moved to California in 2010.
Instead of going to Belmont Day, the small private school I attended in Massachusetts, I ended up completing 4th through 8th grade at Prospect Sierra. Despite my contrarian attitude—I hated my new room, California sucked—I made peace with the transition. I do not mean to say that I accepted this change passively—I had endless questions and many complaints—rather, I got used to it. It was, like every decision in my life had been, not my responsibility. I had to live with the consequences, but if the decision was a mistake, my parents had to face the regret.
They did. Our first summer in Berkeley was a coarse and hot one. Warm breeze intensified the heat, and the dusty air was scorching in comparison to the humid East Coast weather. My parents bickered about the move. My dad complained about the new house while my mom reminisced about the beautiful garden we left behind in Massachusetts. A neighbor dropped off a crudely baked cake to welcome us to the neighborhood. The gift only served to remind my dad of how sophisticated our neighbors in Massachusetts had been. Though, looking back as an adult, I realized that this behavior was indicative of the deeper problems in my parents’ marriage—problems that lead to their later divorce—I attributed it at the time to a far simpler cause; my parents’ decision to move to California was a mistake. Their regret was making them miserable.
I made friends with some of the kids in my humanities class (dubbed homeroom at Prospect Sierra). My favorite subject was history. I have always been an avid reader, so at Belmont Day I loved English; but California’s background of strife and peril fascinated me. We learned about The Gold Rush of 1848, in which thousands of people abandoned their homes and livelihoods to move West, hoping to strike rich. The odds of this happening were low, yet more and more miners flooded into California. People came from all over the world. They had little in common except for their hope and their willingness to risk everything they had for this tiny shot at a better life. This mishmash led to racism and violence, neither of which were punished. There were no real rules during to Gold Rush, or any enforced guidelines to contain this chaos. Only one thing was certain for these miners: there was no going back.
My resistance to making decisions intensified until it was a hindrance. On my fifteenth birthday, my dad tried to taking me shopping. We spent hours at the mall, but I couldn’t settle on anything I saw in the stores. We eventually ended up arguing behind a perfumed rack of t-shirts in an Abercrombie. My dad was trying to impose a navy striped t-shirt on me, while I stubbornly retorted that the stripes were too large and that the shirt was ugly. Eventually, frustrated, he just gave me some cash and called it quits.
Considering how unreasonable I was being, I lasted a long time without having to decide anything that substantial. I was adamant about not making big decisions that I might regret. I finished the eighth grade at Prospect Sierra, and went on to a small high school in Oakland that required an application. I wouldn’t send it in until my mom, dad, grandparents and aunt had all given the school their stamp of approval and reassured me heavily that I was making the right choice.
It wasn’t until I was a Senior in high school when I really found myself facing a choice I could not avoid: where to go to college. On campus, my peers had what I dubbed “college fever”. Everyone was talking about their dream schools—their ambitions to get in, their doubts about whether or not their applications were good enough. Our college counselor gathered the entire grade together at lunch and soberly warned us about the dangers of discussing which schools we were applying to. Apparently, students had been bragging to their friends about all the big names they might get into—Harvard, Stanford, etc. Knowing that their friends were applying to rigorous schools made these students (many of whom did not have a chance of getting in) waste endless hours applying to every single Ivy League, just in case.
College fever spread like wild fire through the Senior class. Even our forty-five-minute lunch break was infected.
“I have a better shot if I apply to Claremont McKenna early”, my friend Jackie remarked one day, “but I’m not sure if I’m ready to make the commitment yet. I mean, I love Georgetown too”.
I gave a brief, uninspired response and steered the discussion in another direction. I did not have a favorite school, and I was tired of hearing other people rave about their options. I had taken the classic college-touring trip with my chipper Aunt. We rented a car and drove from Vermont to New Hampshire, Massachusetts and, finally, New York. The trip was fun, but the tours themselves felt endless and repetitive. After the first few visits, I was sick of listening to smiley student-appointed guides brag endlessly about the merits of each school while tossing heavily glossed pamphlets of college propaganda towards eager parents, desperate to make a good impression on their child’s behalf.
Barnard was one of the last schools I toured, and I went alone. After the visit concluded, I wandered along Riverside Park before finally ending up in front of the building I lived in as a child. I stared up at its façade. The ivory and peach cement blocks of the exterior brought back hazy memories; my mom pushing me to Westside Market in a stroller, staring up at barren treetops in Riverside Park during winter. I tried to pull this history to the forefront of my mind, to ask myself: do I belong back in this city, at this school? My three-year-old self could not help my seventeen-year-old-self make up her mind. Instead, I was reminded of a Mark Twain quote:
“When everyone is looking for gold, it’s a good time to be in the pick and shovel business.”
This statement has a practical meaning—by observing the needs of others, one can profit off of them. Yet, I was most struck by the contrast between the two options. One, mining for gold, was a big risk for an immense reward. The other, was a safer, smarter way to make a profit. Yet, there was something lackluster about the idea of selling shovels when everyone else was mining for gold.
My peers seem to have the same attitude about college as the miners had about gold: shoot high. I, meanwhile, was more of a shovel maker—I just wanted an easy and sure option, whatever it may be, so that I could feel secure.
I caught the downtown 1 at the 110th street station and met up with my dad at our Airbnb on Prince street. The first thing I did lament about how hard it was to pick a school and the impossibility of making up my mind by the early application deadline.
“That’s up to you”, he said, “but I like Barnard. Your counselor says that you are a good candidate for early admission. Besides, you loved Morningside Heights when you were little, maybe it’s meant to be”.
My dad’s statement was in my head when, weeks later, I clicked submit on my early application to Barnard. It seems absurd, but his word made the choice easy. The idea of being in New York at a woman’s college spoke to me, but it was the idea that Barnard was “meant to be” that spoke to me the most. The idea of being destined, in a sense, to return to Morningside Heights, made me feel like I imagine Luther did when he thought about predestination—reassured. If I didn’t get in, or if I did and was unhappy, I would be blameless. If was blameless, I could not be burdened by regret. How could I hold myself accountable if I was “meant” to be there; it wasn’t up to me then, was it? I tried to reassure myself with this logic, but my heart pounded and my hands felt sweaty. I realized I hadn’t moved from the keyboard since I’d finished submitting. Stressed, I called my step-grandmother Barbara for advice. When I told her that my choice to go to Barnard was beyond me, she laughed:
“Every decision you make is a risk”, she said. “You don’t have to worry about regretting the outcome; you made the choice, so you control what you make of the outcome. You don’t have to regret it unless you want to. I’ve been trying to tell your dad this.”
Months later, my mom drove me to SFO. I was lucky enough to be accepted to Barnard, and I was flying to New York to attend my Freshman orientation. I tried to assuage my nerves by reminding myself of what Barb said—whatever happens, it’s my choice if I regret it. In order to not feel regret, all I had decided to do was to own my decision. I choose to go to Barnard, I told myself. I listened to other peoples’ advice, but they are not responsible. This admission wasn’t nearly as frightening as I thought it would be. In fact, it felt strangely invigorating. I wasn’t sure what college would be like, or if I would be happy there. My move to school felt as chaotic and uncertain as The Gold Rush, so I decided adopt its only rule: don’t look back.
Desiderius, Erasmus, et al. Discourse on Free Will. Bloomsbury, 2013.
“The Gold Rush in California | The American West (Article).” Khan Academy, Khan Academy, https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/us-history/the-gilded-age/american-west/a/the-gold-rush.