The college experience at its core is a myriad of “firsts.” For me, it's been a time when I’ve had a number of landmark moments: my first heartbreak, my first tattoo and my first “F” on an assignment. And on April 9, my worst nightmare came true for the first time.
As the suspected active shooter situation was unfolding, I came face-to-face with a stark contrast between the experience of those who do not come from places where this happens and those that do. This contrast became even more evident on Monday, after I had many conversations with American classmates who, when I asked how they were doing, would reply with a comment about how much work they had, or how nice the weather was. So many of the people I spoke to seemed unphased; meanwhile, I was at a loss for words.
Well, that’s not quite true. It wasn’t that there weren’t words that could describe how I was feeling, it was that so many words could describe it. The only answer I could muster when asked how I was doing was “I don’t know.” Not because I didn’t know, but because every possible answer to that question was true.
I was alright because I was alive, while at the same time I was also not alright, because for hours on Sunday it felt very real that I might not be for much longer. I was angry. I was grateful. I was terrified. I was numb. I was exhausted, yet so very awake. I had moments of such intense happiness when I got to hug friends I thought I might never see again, yet these moments felt equally devastating.
This reaction might seem melodramatic. And let me tell you: I understand. I understand that if you grow up one or two degrees of separation from school shootings or bomb threats — or have experienced them yourself — you eventually become desensitized.
I had two more “firsts” after Sunday. For the first time, I felt sorry for Americans. I can’t begin to imagine being surrounded by such visceral fear now, let alone in primary and secondary school. But the conversation about desensitization to these events, though incredibly important, is not what feels most important to highlight. What does feel crucial was the other first, or rather, the impact it had on my outlook on life. For the first time, I faced the possibility that I might be about to die.
The psychological impact of that intense moment was not immediate at all. Sitting tucked behind an ottoman in Chrome, I didn’t have any of those cliché moments where I realized I’d been living my life wrong or anything of that caliber. The anxiety consumed my thought process entirely. Like a lot of people, I was glued to my phone, switching constantly between texting everyone I knew to make sure they were okay and trying to figure out what was actually happening through GroupMe. I was on autopilot, and I remained in that fugitive mental state for the rest of the night.
When I woke up in the morning, everything felt so incorrect, and I had no idea why. Then it all hit me at once: Oh, right, I thought I was going to f*cking die last night. If you’d done a cross section of my brain on Monday, I would have been unsurprised if it resembled one of those animated states-of-matter diagrams of gas particles — utter chaos. I had absolutely no idea how to proceed.
This chaotic state of mind didn’t begin to relent until Monday evening. Walks to the Knoll are often a coping tool for me when I need to clear my head, so as the sky was starting to turn golden, I began to wander. As I rounded the corner of Ridgeline and the sunset came into full view, I was astounded — both by the sunset itself and the overpowering gratitude that I was alive to witness this moment at all. Once the initial overwhelming wave of emotion passed, it occurred to me that Knoll sunsets are one of my favorite things to do here, and yet I’ve seen so few of them. I so rarely go on a Knoll walk, choosing to do things that give me less happiness instead, because I take it for granted that I’ll have so many more opportunities.
It’s so cliché, but in that moment, I realized just how much I take for granted. I realized that the tornado of “Are you okay??” texts I sent on Sunday all carried so many unsaid things: I love you, I’m sorry if I ever hurt you, I am so proud of you. I thought about all the times I felt love for my friends and my family and didn’t say it. We are united by a fear of expressing how much we mean to each other and that uniting fear drives us apart. It wasn’t death that I most feared on Sunday, in truth. It was leaving behind so many people who wouldn’t know how much they mattered to me. As the sunset started to dim and settle into dusk, the particles running around in my mind finally started to solidify.
Where do we go from here? For me, my resolution is to lean in to loving more — both personally and interpersonally. This change isn’t radical and immediate, rather, it is gradual and intentional. It’s often incredibly hard to love ourselves, and I’m not going to pretend like I do, but I’ve discovered that even if I can’t love myself all the time, other people will — and it makes being kind to myself a whole lot easier. I started slipping “I love yous” in when I say goodbye to my friends. I started texting my friends when I think of them to tell them I love them. And I loosened the boundaries a bit on who I say “I love you” to. I never say it when I don’t mean it, but I don’t let the fear that they won’t say it back govern the choice to say it. I no longer assume that I’ll have the chance to express that love later because I now know that it’s possible I won’t.
There’s one more thing I’ve stopped taking for granted, one more vital way I’m leaning in to love: I’ve walked to the Knoll at least once each day since April 9.