By Ezra Wallach | Illustration by Xixi Qin
The subtle light from the stars ceased to follow me into the darkness I had just entered. Now I was in my tent, and aside from the three others who lay next to me, none of whose names I could recall, I was alone. Completely vulnerable and — for the first time in my life — undeniably alone.
I had embarked on a three-day and two-night long biking trip from Colorado Springs to Aspen on my first Block Break, and today marked the end of the first day. Twenty-five miles in the books. I struggled through the miles, very aware of the fact that I reached camp later than most of the others. Reaching camp was a sigh of relief until I realized that tomorrow would be 75 miles. I thought they were joking — I literally thought that would be impossible.
At this point, I was a month into my first year of college, but this was the first time I could be still. This felt like the first time that there wasn’t something for me to do or something that I was missing out on, and so I tried to soak it in. But I couldn’t.
Everything was good. I knew this. I had distracted myself with this reality and knowledge for the past month. But now none of that could help me.
When I went to college, I had dived into a pool of stimuli filled with friendship, joy, drugs, and freedom from parental guidance. It was great, but I could only survive off of these things alone for so long before I started to drown. There was no sturdy diving board I had jumped off of, and the pool in which I had found myself was really more like an ocean, I realized, an endless abyss of wildlife and beauty without a place to rest when I found myself too tired for it all. There I was, essentially alone in the wilderness, being forced to come to terms with the vulnerable state of my own existence, without any distractions. I thought I had it all figured out.
I write this today in what may be the most uncertain and vulnerable time of my life. We are all back home, alone with ourselves, in the middle of a worldwide public health and economic crisis that pulled us out of the college experience we had all learned to take at least a little bit for granted.
In the past few days, which are slowly but surely becoming weeks and months, I’ve sat around, stood around, walked around, run around, and biked around. Usually when my life consists of these activities, and these activities only, they’re done as the backdrop to questions I ask myself about who I want to be or what I want to do. But also more random and spontaneous questions — like, if I stare into the distance for long enough, to the point where everything gets blurry, whether or not the blurriness that appears in my consciousness is any less real than the normal “reality” that I perceive.
I have been lucky that this pandemic hasn’t touched any of my loved ones, but I still have not been exempt from witnessing the chaos and despair taking place in hospital rooms, suffering from which, I must often remind myself, I am not too far removed.
I have realized, in all this time alone, that there is no escaping vulnerability. There is no escaping the fear that comes with it either. I have also realized that this state of vulnerability is not exclusive — it applies to everything.
Consider high school seniors who thought this would be the year they would win their state championship, or that they would finally be able to ask their childhood crush to the prom. All those things I experienced last year they will never be able to, but I still can’t fully understand what that must feel like for them.
The truth is that when we are put in uncertain times, what is important to us becomes clearer. What we are most afraid of becomes clearer too, and what we do in spite of this fear is what defines our character when everything really does seem to be going well.
At some point in the near future, things will be different. We will all hit the play button on our lives again, and once more enter the ocean of pleasure and suffering that most of us can’t seem to live without. But this time, we will remember our vulnerability and the uncertainty of the external world, and instead of straying away from the ocean, we will enter it again — not knowing what it will bring us this time, but diving in head first anyway.