Useless College Classes

This post is about an older article (from 2014), which I just now read and find fascinating. The author is a college professor who is teaching a course called “Wasting Time on the Internet.” Sounds like a made-up, clickbait article, but it’s unfortunately not. It’s legit, and it seems to be based on the premise that the Internet is like a surrealist painting and can be studied as such. So in the three-hour course, the students are supposed to aimlessly surf the Internet, but they will also “explore the long history of the recuperation of boredom and time-wasting, through critical texts by thinkers such as Guy Debord, Mary Kelly, Erving Goffman, Raymond Williams, and John Cage.” (I don’t know who any of those people are.)

Eh, I don’t know if I would take the course, although with that description, it sounds interesting and passably useful. Maybe it’s supposed to make students rethink the amount of time they spend online, or at least rethink what they look at online. The author of the article believes his class will encourage students to create something new from their aimless Internet wanderings. Their browsing history can become art, probably in the same way that a photo of someone’s fecal matter can also be considered “art” because anything goes.

There is a school of thought that says it is necessary to be bored or do things aimlessly, so that the brain can relax and daydream. After all, the daydreaming state is what brought about a lot of classic literature, art, and music. It seems to me like it’s all about how much time is spent wandering about aimlessly in your own mind. It’s one thing to do it in a three-hour class, but those three hours are certainly not the only time that students will be spending in their pointless Internet jaunts. The old principle still applies: Everything in moderation, including mindless “creative” time.

Age of Anxiety

Before the switch to the new translation of the Roman Missal in 2011, one of the prayers in the Mass went like this: “Deliver us, Lord, from every evil, and grant us peace in our day. In your mercy keep us free from sin and protect us from all anxiety as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.”

I remember that my dad used to like that prayer a lot because he suffered from anxiety and depression. When I was a kid, I thought I understood what anxiety was like because my dad had it, and it affected the family. There were other times when I’d get angry at my dad because he couldn’t “get over” what I perceived to be a simple emotion.

The often-paired afflictions of anxiety and depression seem to be much more prevalent than before, especially among American teenagers, according to this New York Times article. Anxiety can be caused by a variety of factors, including the college admissions process, social media, bullying, peer pressure, pressure from parents, a genetic predisposition to anxiety disorders, and so on.

No joke; getting into college can be incredibly stressful. As soon as you enter high school as a freshman, you are indirectly told that if you aren’t successful in the conventional sense (i.e., going to college, getting a degree, working in the corporate world), you’re not going to make it in life. So everyone gets it in their head that they must get to college at all costs. This leads to a frenetic rat race to get the best SAT scores, participate in every extracurricular activity there is, take all the AP classes you possibly can until your brain turns to mush, and generally give yourself stomach ulcers before you even turn 18. Community college is the cheaper option, and it no longer has the stigma it once did. Go for 2 years and transfer to a 4-year school. You will be glad you did.

As for social media, I am grateful that when I was in high school, social media was in its infancy. Even then, it was anxiety inducing because you read things about people that you took to be true simply because the words were printed online. You wondered if you’d get written about next, and there was no way to control who said what if it was on someone else’s page. It’s even worse now because of all the perfect images on Instagram. I don’t think I need to repeat that it sucks to feel as if you’re constantly being compared with perfection.

Bullying sometimes goes along with social media nowadays. I don’t think teenagers and kids are always taught to feel secure within themselves. They are indirectly taught to look outward or constantly be doing things to boost their self-esteem, and self-esteem built on outward things and constantly being busy is like a house built on sand. To me, if your sense of self is built on your own intrinsic worth and not on what you can do or who you hang out with or what kinds of gadgets you have, you will be more inoculated against bullying.

Nothing can really be done about the genetic predisposition to anxiety, except to alleviate sources of anxiety so they don’t make what is already there worse. Medication is always an option; there is no shame in it. However, the most important thing about medication is to make sure it is absolutely necessary and to take it when and how it is prescribed.

Overall, I believe undue anxiety in teenagers is caused by pressure, and that pressure could come from peers, parents, or both. I hear parents all the time bragging about how their kids are involved in a million activities, making straight A’s in school, and somehow managing to also be superheros in their spare time. I find myself thinking… either I was one hell of a slacker in high school, these parents are exaggerating, or their kids really are actual superheroes. I don’t remember my parents putting that much pressure on me. Maybe kids these days do all those things of their own accord or because their friends are also doing it, and they feel they need to compete. It could have very little to do with the parents, but I find that hard to believe.

To alleviate anxiety, it is important to keep things in perspective. Getting into college may seem like the most important thing in the world, and it certainly seems that way, but your health is more important in the long run.

Joy and Self-Care

Since I started thinking more deeply about religion and faith, words whose definitions I thought I knew have started to take on different meanings. Suffering no longer means quite what I thought it did. Once I thought suffering meant “utter misery for no particular purpose other than the fact that life sucks and then you die,” but suffering started to become more purposeful. Suffering involves hope and faith.

Similarly, joy has taken on another meaning. When I thought of joy, I always thought of the giddy excitement that builds up before an expected event, like waiting for Christmas or your birthday. I suppose I had a child’s perception of joy.

About this time last year, one of our parish priest’s homilies was about joy, and how joy was actually an acronym that stood for Jesus, others, yourself, and they are in that order for a reason. You can do things for yourself that bring you fleeting happiness, but putting others first is always better because the good feeling lingers. ‘Tis better to give than to receive and all that. In turn, what you do for others is also done for Jesus, as in Matthew 25:40: “And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’” Things that are done solely for Jesus, like prayer and adoration, always bring the greatest joy. True, they may not seem joyful at first, but over time, they become the necessary things to sustain one’s spirit in a world that is overly focused on material.

One of the trendy buzzwords that comes up all the time is self-care. That word always irritates me because I read about “self-care rituals” on Tumblr, and they involve things like taking bubble baths and spending hours binge-watching your favorite shows on Netflix. Most of the time, it equates to “if you’re an introvert, it’s OK to take your introvert time.” Well, that’s all fine and good. I admit that the occasional bubble bath and Netflix marathon aren’t bad. It’s necessary to take a break from reality to restore your sanity. But self-care can be overdone, and that may not always bring about happiness or joy. Self-care involves putting yourself first.

A common argument is that, to some degree, you have to put yourself first so that you can be at your highest capacity to serve others. It is true that you shouldn’t neglect your basic needs, like food and hygiene and being adequately dressed, but that’s not really self-care… it’s just common sense. To me, this self-care thing goes much deeper than those basics and can easily turn into selfishness. Leave me alone. I’m doing my self-care rituals. It is easy to have too much introvert time and become lazy and unwilling to come out of your metaphorical blanket fort, even when others need you.

Putting others first can sustain you in ways that self-care can’t. Spending time with others is more worthwhile (80% of the time) than spending time by yourself, and spending time with Jesus in prayer and adoration is more worthwhile (100% of the time) then spending time by yourself engaging in self-care.

Self-care is perhaps only surface-level care. Little bits here and there can be restoring for moments, but they are not gifts that keep on giving, like acting on the “J” and the “O” of joy. A good offering for Advent might be to moderate our self-care and keep the “Y” where it belongs—last.