Bound in the Binaries (and How to Get Out)

Claire Jiang ’24 (Copy Editor, 142nd Board) in Editorials | September 30, 2022

The sun beat down vigorously, the day so hot you could almost see waves of heat radiating from the ground. We had already been en route to our campsite for two hours with barely any progress, and now, we rested our exhausted and sore bodies on a narrow trail, scattered with horse litter and barely able to fit the width of a single person. 

This marked day two of my three-week long Outward Bound (O.B.) expedition, and already, our group was fatigued and frustrated. One person had been driven to the hospital because rashes and blemishes started to appear on his body, and the rest of us had struggled to walk with 50-pound packs containing our clothes and necessities, alongside sleeping bags, pots, pans, and food to last for a week. The crew, consisting of 11 students and three instructors, left our first campsite in the afternoon. Yet traveling to our next campsite, though only two miles away, took nearly four hours.

In the spring of last year, I applied for Lawrenceville's North Carolina Outward Bound Summer Scholarship. Due to my previous involvement with the School’s Experiential Education Program, I already had previous experience with climbing and belaying. Going into O.B., I had already mentally prepared myself to step out of my comfort zone and to face challenges that would come my way. So, I was determined not to give up on myself or others—but a part of me still wondered whether getting through the expedition was even possible.
My worries were justified. In the next few days, I had to rapidly adjust to life in the backcountry: facing fatigue, living without running water and modern-day plumbing, setting up tarps every night, sleeping on the ground, and the worst part: dealing with the bugs and critters. Although I had predicted these challenges and difficulties beforehand, my resolve and past knowledge still couldn’t prepare me for the physical, mental, and emotional demand of the expedition. In the span of those three weeks, our group canoed 10 miles in a day, disputed over inequitable distribution of work, and witnessed a car crash; I did everything from hysterically laughing with friends to sobbing alone.

Looking back, if I had known that O.B. would have been such a wild see-saw, my decision to sign up might have changed. Oftentimes, predicting what an experience looks like beforehand might make one less likely to do it. If I had constantly reiterated my inability to complete the expedition, I probably would have quit immediately. Instead, I had to take in the experience day by day, literally one step at a time, relying on others and trusting that my crewmates could support me.

When I talked to my friends and family about O.B., most of them responded with remarks about their own lack of aptitude for the challenge. Yes, maybe it isn’t meant for everyone, but one’s self-disparagement of their own inabilities is applicable to anything.

For example, my initial return to school after a summer of so much joy and excitement felt like a jolt back into reality. It was junior year: more responsibility in the House, harder classes that would probably be impossible to balance, and the looming prospect of college tipping closer and closer. Already, I started to tell myself that there was no way I could manage everything at once, that school would be miserable because of late nights, tests every other day, and being stuck in a perpetual state of work. But this mentality, in addition to preparing me for inevitable failures, also minimizes progress; if I were doomed to fail, why try in the first place?

Lawrenceville students, although brilliant, hard-working, and talented in so many ways, often trap themselves in this binary state of mind. Oh, the number of times people have told me, “I’m not a humanities or a STEM person” or “I know I’m terrible at writing or math” as justification for failing or not trying out something new. Already, we’ve decided to fail before even starting. A lot of this mentality is rooted in the fear of failure, which is understandable at a school like Lawrenceville. Here, everything seems so high-stakes; our grades, extracurriculars, and classes determine what college we’ll go to and what our future looks like. Or so we think. 

The reality (and what I grapple with all the time) is that whatever we associate with success—fame, money, recognition—aren’t direct paths to happiness. Cliché, but true. Although having priorities and working hard to achieve our goals are admirable qualities, our collective self-doubt obstructs the joy that trying something new brings. If we didn’t limit ourselves to the classes that we’re comfortable in or the activities we’ve been doing for years, perhaps we could discover novel and thrilling facets of our own interests.

I’d be a huge hypocrite if I said I am never stuck in the outskirts of the extremes. I’m an “all or nothing” person; to do something is to do something well. When I don’t reach the benchmark I held myself to, my inner critic floods my brain with self-disparagement and anger. Yet in the process of expecting perfection from ourselves and obsessing over ridiculously high standards, we often miss out on what’s most important to us: creating friendships, discovering passions, doing what we love, or just taking care of ourselves.

Still, if Lawrentians can live away from the comforts of home and family for over 180 days, play three interscholastic sports, have the courage to be one’s most vulnerable self on the stage, or simply just be present, then truly, how limitless are the possibilities of taking care of ourselves and connecting with each other? Perhaps the cause of our incapabilities is not rooted in our lacking something important, but rather that we always tell ourselves, “I can’t,” instead of “I can.”