I think when Dickens wrote the iconic line, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” he had final exams at the University in mind. Locked in my room the week before my Arabic exam, I felt like a prisoner of war thirsty for sunlight. Around the third day I said to myself, “Things cannot get worse than this.” Surrounded by books and crumpled up pieces of scratch paper, my dreams were slowly infiltrated by verb conjugations and vocabulary lists.

Test day came and I held my breath — I had been wrong, things got much worse. But much to my surprise, no one had to wheel me out of the testing room. I had finished the test and apparently gained a mastery of the language I could never have foreseen. In the process of enduring an academic gauntlet, a lesson in life emerged: As we struggle to earn our degrees in a state that has become ground zero in this economic collapse, it’s easy to say we are living in the worst of times. But perhaps in the midst of our struggles, we lose sight of just how close the “best” and “worst” really are.

“Finals are the absolute worst,” lamented my friend down the hall. And he’s right — they demand your understanding of every aspect of the material and can generally take a hardworking student and reduce him or her to a mumbling shell of their former self. Hyperbole aside, exams at the University generally spell the worst of times for a college student.

But college is unlike any other time in a person’s life. Here, we have a mandate to explore ideas, navigate uncharted waters and think big. Though our professors may not list it on a syllabus, we are allowed and even expected to mess up, get lost and start over. Yes, exams, reports, readings and homework often push us to the edge of sanity. But it’s through weathering this storm that we emerge as well-rounded adults capable of developing, exploring and communicating ideas. It’s only because we endure the worst that we become the Leaders and Best.

With the second-highest unemployment rate in the country, Michigan is no stranger to downturns. The worst economic recession since the Great Depression has spurred the evaporation of entire automobile lines and left Detroit clamoring to return to its glory days. For many Michiganders, these truly are the worst of times. But it’s because of the energy crisis that Michigan universities now lead the way in alternative energy research. As foreign automakers take both jobs and tax revenue from Michigan, the Big Three have been forced to innovate, become more fuel-efficient and build better cars. Though the “mom and pop store” down the road may be closing, the Michigan film industry is bringing in millions of dollars a year and generating thousands of new jobs.

Michiganders have always claimed to be a resilient people, though this was easy to say when Detroit was the automobile capital of the world and every garage had at least a car or two. Today that resilience is tested by the jobs we create, the ideas we expand and the livelihoods we restore. Undoubtedly, Michigan has recently experienced some of its worst days, but it’s because of this that a better, more robust economy and community will develop.

Leave it to Jerry Seinfeld to sum it up nicely: “The greatest lesson you can learn in life is that ‘sucks’ and ‘great’ are really pretty close.” A society in turmoil, much like a forest after a wildfire, grows stronger. Sometimes society needs adversity in order to grow. To be sure, the Big Three needed the threat of disintegration in order to innovate. As undergrads, we face adversity every day — in classes that demand more from us than we think we can give and in the struggle to become adults. Through enduring this adversity, however, our tolerance for the “worst” increases and we can grow as individuals. It’s reasonable — heck, it’s expected — to fear the worst. But it’s also important for us to understand that from every trial and conflict, a new, better self emerges.

Tyler Jones can be reached at tylerlj@umich.edu.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.