It’s Monday night and the Law Library is in full swing. The usual crowd is all there: the pretentious law student all too proud of his Stanford t-shirt and matching sweatpants who’s reading about contracts, the girl who types so loudly it sounds like she’s using Morse code to communicate with her friend on North Campus, the guy who thinks that just because he has headphones on, I can’t hear him listening to Taio Cruz.

And then there’s me – somewhere underneath the Arabic notes and psychology pages, I’m diligently chipping away at my workload. It’s been an unusually awful week for me, as it has been for most of my friends.

So you can imagine my displeasure when I checked the calendar and discovered I had a column due this week. I don’t have time to feed myself, yet I’m expected to put together a thought-provoking social commentary? Quickly, my mind looks for an easy answer. Maybe I’ll just write about Andrew Shirvell – there’s plenty of good material there. With time ticking away, I needed a topic. But in my quest to write a column, I was able to put my current situation into some much needed perspective.

When I need to pull a quick column idea out of my hat, I look to CNN.com. Surely among the world’s latest buzz there is an idea just waiting to be developed. First, there’s the story of the Carnival Cruise ship stranded in the middle of the ocean. After a fire broke out in one of the engine rooms early Monday morning, the Carnival Splendor lost power and operated on auxiliary generators until it was towed into port yesterday.

But while still stranded 130 miles west of Ensenada, Mexico, with no air conditioning and with plumbing only recently being restored to the boat, numerous cruisers checked into the infirmary after suffering panic attacks. The only thing I can imagine more unbearable than an obnoxious cruise-goer complaining about the runniness of his Eggs Benedict is a cruise-goer with no buffet or running water. Truly, things could be worse for me.

But then there was the story of the Somali pirates who attacked a Spanish warship with their stolen Japanese freighter. Intent on attacking a ship carrying peacekeeping supplies to Somalia, the pirates instead engaged in a skirmish with the Spanish Navy. According to the European Union Naval Force public affairs office, the warship only used “minimal force.” This makes sense, as I imagine the Somali pirates were heavily armed with sharp stones and dirty insults. Needless to say, the pirates scurried away as quickly as their freighter could take them (which is still probably faster than the Carnival Splendor). Truly, things could be worse for me.

So no, I didn’t discover a well-packaged column idea that I could crank out in 15 minutes. And I walked out of the Arabic midterm Tuesday morning feeling degraded and embarrassed. I have no doubt my professor will get a few laughs out of my attempt at an essay.

But somewhere between reading about those stranded vacationers and those desperate Somali pirates, I gained a little perspective on life. Sure, the test wasn’t a total success. But things in my life could certainly be worse. Having a little perspective, especially around this time of year, is important. We’re all busy now. With midterms slowing down and finals gearing up, it’s hard to believe things could be worse than 2 a.m. Law Library sessions followed by 10 a.m. Arabic midterms. But seeing life clearly, especially in a time of year when it’s difficult to see anything clearly, is necessary.

Being able to study at the University – renowned for making smart people feel stupid – is an honor. Studying under some of the most brilliant minds in our nation is a gift, even if their lectures sometimes make no sense. Sitting next to some of the future thinkers and doers of our generation is inspiring, even if these thinkers and doers make long-winded comments during discussion sections.

I’m not trying to say that doing well in your classes isn’t important, or that pulling consecutive all-nighters isn’t a drag. But I’ve found that we tend to lose perspective when we cease to see the big picture. No single test will define your college career. These four years are about the accumulated experiences and lessons that will shape the next steps of our lives. Turning one test or one paper into the be-all end-all is the surest way to lose sight of the big picture.

As exam season gears up and it starts to seem like every professor is judging your worth based on a Scantron exam, keep in mind why you are here and the value of every experience. Don’t lose sight of that big picture and remember that life could certainly be worse for you, a student at an elite university.

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

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