As this semester rounds the corner, myself and many others have begun to feel overwhelmed with the choices we’ll soon need to make: classes, majors, internships, graduate schools. As we figure out our futures, the path forward can feel so linear, and that any misstep means failure. This fear isn’t irrational either, especially in light of the pandemic, where everything becomes unstable and opportunities such as internships have become limited.
As a solution to our stress, many of us have been told to follow our passions. But what if we’re not sure what those passions are and, more importantly, how do we find them? It often feels like a search for destiny. Scientists at Stanford University have delved into this topic and have determined that passion isn’t a fixed state we must discover, but a developed state we must work to discover. This means making mistakes, rerouting, self-discovery — in other words, the magic of silver linings.
For myself, I experienced this effect, a microcosm of silver linings, at a dismal house on Spider Lake, Mich. We took the only place we could find that would fit us all at the last minute. Just the name itself, Spider Lake, would make anyone uneasy, and with my arachnophobia, I approached the trip doubtfully. “It’s just a name,” my parents said. They were right, at least about that much.
The house wasn’t in great condition: the furniture was creaky, the fabric fading, the surfaces grimy. That was okay, we didn’t need anything fancy. But slowly, the place started collapsing on us: two chairs broke, one oar of the canoe snapped while my sister and my dad were in the middle of the lake and the overflowing grease trap caught the grill on fire. The backyard wasn’t much better. The hill between the shore and the house was steep. If you moved too quickly or recklessly, you would stumble, fall, maybe twist an ankle if you were clumsy. Ants would cover the grass when it rained and rats bolted between the docks.
Now, in retrospect, the condition of the place wasn’t nearly as bad as I imagined it as a nine-year-old. But in my childhood, I feared the house deeply, dreaming up spiders and snakes coming from the walls while I slept. My anxiety wasn’t rational, but I was too young to have that sensibility. I did my best to adapt. My first priority was to stay outside of the house as much as possible. As a part of my mission, my aunt and I took multiple “nature walks” a day, strolling with a camera and lunch bags down gravel roads, weaving between the trees that separate one house from another. We sat on logs, ate our lunches and looked over the notes and pictures we’d taken. Eventually, I would close my eyes and just listen to the wind and the birds and the faint sound of the flowing lake. When it was time to return home, I didn’t want to — not because I was afraid, but because for one of the first times in my life, I felt inspired.
I wrote a poem, something about clouds speaking to me and following me wherever I went. I remember reading it to my aunt and my parents, seeing their smiles, encouraging me to write more. And so I did. I felt safer in the house then, more excited to play with my cousins, laugh by the bonfire and sleep soundly. Now looking back on that trip, it’s not only one of the best vacations we ever had, but I also see it as the beginning of my writing journey. I don’t believe I was fated to start writing in that moment, but that the choices I did make then — to be grateful for that vacation and seek beauty in the ugliness — lit a passion in me, allowing me to open up and feel secure within myself. I don’t know if I’d be otherwise if it weren’t for that disaster-turned-miracle of a vacation.
Spider Lake is like a metaphor for passion: a goal with no clear end or road, but a map of side roads and potholes, where what seems like a wrong turn can be your right destination if you try. In a greater sense as we emerge into adulthood, live out our futures and overcome adversity (and not just in terms of a crappy vacation house), we don’t have to be passive to the ideas of circumstance or fate. Even little disappointments can be blessings within the greater scheme of life, and not by accident, but through our own strength. Whenever I’m worked up about my plans for graduate school and my career, I try to picture them like Spider Lake and know that I have the power to find the silver linings.
Elizabeth Wolfe is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.