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What I learned from the Wilson climbing wall and other first-year reflections

Trying out the Wilson rock climbing wall was on my “first-year at Duke!” bucket list, so when a friend asked me to climb last weekend, I thought I would give it a try. 

I strapped on the harness and awkwardly-shaped climbing-shoes with a feeling of readiness, excitement and confidence as I measured up the plastic ascending above me. I mastered the knot in my rope, firmly declared ‘on belay!’ and grasped the first green hold that would take me to the top. 

The first few minutes, I felt I was flying. I was ascending steadily, painless. Wow, you are a natural, I told myself: first time and you’re already halfway there!

As I started passing the halfway point, little sharp pains began to burn in my forearms. Shake it off, I told myself, you got this. 

I kept climbing, but soon after my stint of self-motivation, I was forced to face some soul-shattering dilemmas. 

The one green hold in sight seemed miles above me, my foot was slipping from a finger-sized ‘hold’, and my forearms felt like they would fall off any minute. Why had my sky-high state of confidence turned into a rocky mess of stagnation? 

I glanced around the wall. 

Why are all the other students at Duke apparently literal tree frogs, gripping corners of the wall I could not even see, scaling at rates I thought impossible? 

Then I thought about what the climbing wall employee mentioned at the desk, that the numbers on the walls represent the difficulty of the climb, starting with 5.5. I saw walls labeled 5.8, 5.10, 5.11 and Dukies ascending them with ease. I looked for the label on mine: 5.6.

"Just bring your left leg up to that green one!” I heard my friend yell from below. 

"HOW?" I wanted to yell. I am suspended in the air holding on for my life on one of the easiest climbs there is and people are passing me like I have become part of this piece of plastic. 

“YOU CAN DO IT!” my friend shouted. 

Fine. I pushed through the pain. Eventually, a while later, I made it to the rather disappointingly ugly reward of the metal ring holding the ropes at the top of the wall.  

I find this rock climbing experience has some parallels to my first year. As I reflect on this year at Duke, I remember sometimes having similar feelings of being stuck and unable to see a green hold on the wall, or feelings of not measuring up against the wall-scaling extraordinaires around me. 

This ‘measure-up’ mindset was stressful, and it was one I too frequently fell into adapting this year. 

I entered this first year eager and open to the incredible grandeur of the world of Duke. I felt confident and ready—I had performed to the standard to get to the place, I told myself, so I must be able to belong based on my ability. 

My first year has taught me that there is a much more fulfilling philosophy. Instead of seeing people and myself as climbers scaling the ladder of success, I want to appreciate people for their incredible individuality, their backgrounds and beliefs. I learned from and connected to people so much better with this mindset. As a friend once told me, we are called human beings and not human doings for a reason. 

A Duke narrative based on how I perform tells me my failures are unacceptable because they prevent me from climbing a rung higher on the ladder of capitalistic success. 

My personal creeds based on the value of who am I tell me my failures are embraced because they teach me how to become more adaptable, stronger, and more assured. 

I am choosing a reflection of my first year that is not rooted in how far I have climbed up the rock wall toward my career goals or success based on society’s values of prestige and monetary power. 

I am choosing a reflection of my first year that is rooted in gratitude. 

I am grateful for our beautiful campus—it seems the flowers and trees are expressing their own gratitude this time of year (although the pollen may be saying thanks a bit too loudly). 

I am grateful for the piano in the Pegram common room and Tre Jones’ return

I am grateful for the diversity of the worldviews of people here and for professors who invest in me. 

In this grateful reflection on my first-year, I find that clearly we are privileged. I believe this point underscores ever more an ethical obligation for gratitude. I think that when we use gratitude, we are also intrinsically breaking down levels of hierarchy or social levels because gratitude itself levels playing fields and elicits humility in relationships. 

Gratitude also requires our complete attention to our surroundings, meaning that we lose our self-absorption. 

A professor told me a story that I think illustrates this point well. Once, there was a pre-med student at Duke who was also a talented violinist. She fell into a frenzy—focusing on, correcting, mulling over her mistakes. One day during a lesson, her teacher stopped her playing and asked her to leave the room. Her teacher told her to knock and re-enter, and to act like a doctor coming into a clinic to treat a patient. 

When the girl reentered, the teacher acted sick and hurting, eager for trust and guidance from the student, reaching out and pleading her. The girl had to care for nothing but her teacher at that moment. She had to choose attention and empathy over her perfectionism and self-editing.

And the teacher said that that is how you should play the violin, with complete absorption, curiosity, care and attention for the music—overcoming self-absorption. 

As a pre-medical student, I also find myself often tight and stressed because I focus on grasping that next hold as I climb closer to my goal of medical school.

Yet, this first year has led me to ask: what if I free myself to be absorbed in learning for the sake of learning and free myself from the stress of pre-professional perfectionism? 

My first year has emphasized my love of liberal arts—where we are learning about why humans are as well as how humans are. I have found the value in Duke’s speaker events, including Honor Council’s events, to learn about the ethics behind the STEM material I learn in my classes. After my first year, I believe that the importance of learning about who we are in this world points to our need for a more well-rounded, liberal arts education—where each student graduates having read more of the great works of literature, philosophy and ethics. 

Curiosity and care overcome self-absorption when we study and learn to grow as humans, not to grab another rung in the ladder toward our career goals. 

My last reflection of my first-year is a challenge to myself and others--write an actual, physical handwritten thank you note. To a professor. To the person who cleans your beautiful dorm. To a coworker. To someone who has cared for and valued you for who you are, not how far or how fast you can ascend the climbing wall of cultural success. 

This week's column was written by Margaret Gaw, a Trinity first-year.

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