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The sigh

| Monday, September 21, 2015

Double-fisted triple-shot espresso Starbucks runs from LaFun, vacancies at the Bookstore basketball courts despite picture-perfect weather, crowded section study lounges … ah yes, the first round of exams and paper deadlines must be right around the corner. From the three-papers-due-on-Wednesday dilemma to the psychology, statistics and orgo trio of testing terror, it is difficult to not experience secondary anxiety for my underclassmen friends whose schedules are far less forgiving than that of a typical senior year. Reflecting on the challenges to come for many throughout the coming weeks, I am reminded of an important event in my Notre Dame experience that helped put a similarly hectic situation into clarifying perspective and changed my outlook on challenges in my life.

It was approximately 9:00 p.m. on a rainy Wednesday night during the fall of my sophomore year. I was on the sojourn from Jordan Hall of Science to Duncan Hall, a journey of already formidable length that was compounded by pouring rain and soaked socks as a consequence of poor planning (and even poorer rain boots). Facing the impending doom of two yet-to-be-completed lab reports, a pre-lab, an exam on Friday and a mountain of Arabic homework left over from what should have been a more productive weekend, I was walking back from my beloved home-away-from-home after fruitlessly editing uneven proton NMR graphs using software available only on the computers in Jordan. To put the futility of my situation into context for non-science majors: you know you’re really in hot water when the graduate T.A. at office hours who is pursuing a Ph.D. in chemistry and reads these graphs daily says she does not have a clue why your graph “is really, really messed up.” I was frustrated, tired, wet and done with everything school-related.

On the journey back home, I asked a question that I have posed many times since: “Why?” Back then, I was still grappling with the fact that many of my friends at other colleges seemed to have significantly less work to do than I; they went out more, studied less, got better grades and were seemingly having a much easier go at this whole college business than I. While I was certainly grateful that I was able to attend a school as wonderful as Notre Dame and ultimately knew the value of the education I was receiving, there was certainly a nagging at the back of my mind that I could have gotten a education elsewhere that wouldn’t have been nearly as stressful, difficult or rainy.

As I got onto South Quad by O’Shag, a new song came up on the playlist — “The House That Built Me” by Miranda Lambert. Seeing that my mind was preoccupied with these aforementioned thoughts (and that the track is one of my favorite songs), I didn’t pay close attention to the lyrics and continued my walk without a second thought. As I started strolling along the sidewalk closest to God Quad, I passed the clearing where the Golden Dome is completely visible and, like I have done hundreds of times before, I stole a glance to my right.

This time, however, my brisk walk slowed to an eventual halt. I turned such that I was facing the Dome, looked up through the drizzling rain and to the sultry crooning of Miranda Lambert, inhaled deeply and sighed an unusual sigh.

It is difficult to describe what that sigh sounded like, but I can definitely tell you how it felt.

It was the release of the frustrations I encountered throughout the day, week and semester. It was the resolution of so many personal uncertainties and doubts, insecurities and fears both big and small. Above all, it was the answer to the question I kept asking myself. “Why Notre Dame, Michael? I’ll tell you why — you belong here, and being here will help you accomplish even your wildest dreams.”

Granted, the above revelation (after years of contemplation, after all) is far more eloquent than the amalgam of thoughts swirling through my head at the time. However, that’s the best way I can describe the overwhelming flood of reassurance and dissipation of self-doubt that occurred for me that Wednesday night two years ago.

As I walked away from that priceless view of Our Lady, I listened to Ms. Lambert’s words with new meaning. This place — the people, the classes and the problems — is the metaphorical house that is continually challenging me to be the best I can be for the sake of both others and myself. It is the place I know I can call home more truthfully than anywhere save my actual hometown. It is, as clichéd as it sounds, where I belong — and where I know I belong no matter what.

As students at Notre Dame, we have to deal with unique challenges and struggles that are as varied and multi-faceted as we are. Everyone has an “I’m-in-over-my-head” moment where they ask some variation of the question “Why?” And while I am not claiming to have a cure-all answer to that question, I can share the process that helped me arrive at my own inner peace. It was thinking about the point of it all on a 15-minute-long trek through the rain on a Wednesday night under the gleaming gold of Our Lady that helped this writer understand the value of self-assessment and reflection in tackling the most formidable of challenges. Hopefully your method of reflection involves less wetness, a lot less organic chemistry and more of something else. Whatever that something may be, looking at the grand scheme of things every once and a while can put even the most seemingly insurmountable of days in a perspective that gives you the comfort and confidence to march on.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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