Columns, Opinions

Murray ’16: The weight of Brown

By
Guest Columnist
Friday, January 23, 2015

Inhaling a generous gulp of Bolivian air, I gazed at the view below me: sprawling foothills of the Andes, a collage of purples, greens and browns and a blue, blue sky without a cloud in sight. I could hardly comprehend what my eyes perceived below me. I was in paradise.

At 5,180 meters, the air was thin and crisp, its chill tinting my cheeks a shade of bright pink and demanding my lungs work twice as hard as normal. The past two days I had been trekking with just a small pack strapped to my back, yet I’d been dragging along another, heavier weight the last two months: the weight of Brown. Inklings of selfishness had begun seeping into my thoughts. I sighed, exhaling, feeling this weight dig deeper into my sore shoulders and further burdening my heart with each step forward.

Nine months ago, I decided to leave Brown for the fall semester and backpack through South America by myself. At the time, I felt tired and burned out, unsure of what I wanted to do and in what direction I wanted to take my studies. It was easy to misconstrue this confusion and indecisiveness as malaise when I was sitting alongside classmates with plans for promising conventional futures.

I was unmotivated and chastised myself for being lazy even though I was writing the papers, completing problem sets, showing up to class, running extracurriculars and making dinner with friends — I was a robot.

In the automation of typical college days, I lost myself. I was working hard, but without contemplation. I couldn’t make myself happy because I didn’t know myself. I needed to clear my head so I could listen to myself and understand what I really wanted. But this was a challenge on top of keeping up with classes, working a job to pay college expenses and maintaining a modest social life. Besides, I was itching to see the world.

I landed in Quito, Ecuador the first week of June without much of a plan or a return ticket. Rather than commit to a regimented itinerary, I wanted everything open-ended and was ready to go where the whims of spontaneous opportunity would take me. In between every exhilarating twist and turn, however, doubt about my Brown education persisted — a constant, looming shadow chilling me despite the hot South American sun.

Over and over again I was struck with the thoughts: Do I need a Brown degree to be happy? Do I need to change the world? Is focusing on my happiness selfish? Do I owe the world something momentous from my talents? Could I graduate from Brown and undertake life as a vagabond, traveling and partaking of the simple world?

The pressure to perform at a high level, not only during my time at Brown but also afterwards, screams at me, telling me I would be irresponsible to live a life without a conventional cause. The pressure demands my attention, asking, “How can you use the expensive and privileged opportunity of a Brown education for practically nothing? Wouldn’t others kill for that opportunity? Aren’t you contemplating an unconscionable waste?”

The truth is that I don’t want to work at the United Nations, or hold a high-stress position with the U.S. Department of State, or wear a business suit every day to a consulting firm’s offices, or start a nonprofit or slave away on ground-breaking research. Just as someone else focused on a conventional business future wouldn’t want to wander and float as I am doing now.

Reflecting on all that I’ve done these past seven months outside of school and internships, I am content and proud of what I have managed to accomplish. From building a compost outhouse, to washing dishes for my room and board, to teaching yoga, to living in a tent for weeks at a time, to hiking Machu Picchu, to reading dozens of fascinating books, to conversing with indigenous shamans, to swimming in volcanic hot springs, to exploring Patagonia, to singing with people from all over the world, to building fires, to spending days alone, to climbing to the summit of a 6,000-meter mountain in below freezing temperatures, I have no regrets.

During my trip, I didn’t memorize any physics equations, read any intense articles about new philosophical questions or finish any problems sets. But I accomplished something that is more valuable. I learned about myself, who I am and what it means to be a contributing human being on this Earth. I learned much more about what makes me happy and what makes me the best Emma Murray than I ever could at a university.
Yet the weight of Brown’s privilege gives these adventures and revelations a bittersweet flavor. My heart flutters with excitement as I stare at new mountains, new oceans, new books and new friends. My smile has taken my face hostage and my soul feels happy and free. But I’m not contributing to anything right now, at least in the sense of what we are taught at Brown and what my peers expect of me. Am I being selfish? Do I need to do something that is judged by others as profound and constructive with my Brown degree?

These questions haunt me every day. But I can’t and won’t let the weight slow me down on this adventure of mine, because finding myself and understanding what gives me happiness makes me the best human being I can be — something for which everyone should strive.

Emma Murray ‘16 can be reached at emma_murray@brown.edu.

  • stu

    write a book! your adventures sound really cool 🙂

    • Robin

      She would sell only a few copies. It would not be a profitable venture. But then she might stack a hundred of hard copies on her own book shelf, and would feel good about it. Emma, before you come back to Brown, consider another trek, this time through the Himalayas. Say hi to batman for us. Remember, you have Brown to thank. Otherwise you might have no chance to meet batman.

  • Ciara

    On the contrary, Robin don’t think you have any idea what would be in a book of Emma Murray’s adventures in South America, because you have no idea what she did or experienced in the past 6 months.

    Emma, beautifully written article. I ask myself those questions too, constantly. You make a good point when you say that others would not be content leading the lifestyle you have found the most invigorating, inspiring, and life-giving. I would only hesitate to generalise other paths as conventional.

    Having said that, I couldn’t agree more that this should be considered a worthwhile and far-from-futile venture for many more Brown students – the potential value of discovery and reflection achieved by travelling alone and venturing out of a comfort zone is underrated.

  • sorry u were a robot

    lol so hard to have enough $$ to do whatever u want all the time. u go, rich girls. let your smiles take your faces hostage

  • Anon

    Emma, You should watch Saving Private Ryan if you haven’t already

  • ’16 Student

    I wonder what she actually learned — or really, what anyone ever learns during these “self-discovery” money pits; it’s a shame she never mentions. Perhaps the “weight of Brown” for some is having so much cash/privilege that you can literally do whatever you want for a semester/year/etc. with virtually no recourse, and it’s oh so hard to decide which path to chhoose. And FYI, not bashing the writer in any way; I have considered taking a similar trip, but am skeptical of the value and just putting some thoughts out there.

  • Tom Bale ’63

    To Emma: Thanks for sharing your search with us. The vivid description of your journey suggests that words are one of your main tools that give you power. They enable you to transform “swimming in volcanic hot springs” into a metaphor for your quest. Many of us have been on that same search to discover ourselves. For me, I have found in the twilight of my life that the search never ends. It has less to do with geography, and much more to do with connections to people, and being able to imagine what their lives are all about. Your good words may help you keep going in the direction you want to go.