In the day-to-day scheme of things, we are surrounded by lists of all kinds, whether they are in the form of last-minute shopping lists scribbled onto Post-It notes or the day-by-day delineation of an ambitious four-year plan. However, I find too often that the emotions that these lists speak to are those of stress, frustration or occasionally even excruciating pain: To scribble out a to-do list is to create a visual representation of all that I have yet to accomplish. The concept of listing classes is met with a hiss of panic and paranoia as I try to decide whether picking a CS class over an introductory course in political science will determine the rest of my life. Listing my “skills” and “experiences” on a resume template downloaded off an obscure website for an internship I have yet to even begin applying for is met with crushing self-doubt. The general presence of these lists themselves culminates in a heap of muddled obligation staring me straight in the face.
We create these lists in order to organize ourselves, to compartmentalize our goals and prioritize our responsibilities so that they seem more manageable, but in many cases, this process is carried out to the opposite effect. These little bullet-pointed sets that are supposed to help me feel better only freak me out even more, so I started to hate listing. I stopped writing down all my homework assignments in one place because the bulk of them all together seemed too daunting. I didn’t plan out my tasks for the day under the assumption that I wouldn’t get them done anyway.
But I slowly realized that going about my life in perpetual disorganization and confusion didn’t make my responsibilities go away, let alone the stress surrounding them, which is why everything changed when a close friend of mine introduced me to the Happy List.
There she sat, with tears streaming down her face, gasping for breath and clutching her stomach as if she had just been punched in the gut. She was cackling away at the fact that I had just texted her 50-something-year-old, stoic father in great detail about an awkward interaction over Tinder, not realizing that she had changed her number and her dad had inherited the old one. From the floor of her dorm room, between gasps for air, she managed to croak out, “Hold on, I need to put this on the List.”
Staring over her shoulder at the laptop screen, I watched her pull up a Word document titled “Happy.” She scrolled down four pages of bullet points accompanied by colorful font and even more colorful language. In a quick skim I caught sight of the phrases, “Chinese man with dragon-breath flame-balls,” and, “Leprechaun tights – too tight.” At the bottom of the page in bright red lettering she typed up: “Well, at least you didn’t text your friend’s dad long paragraphs about bad conversations on hook-up apps.”
“What is this for?” I asked her.
“It’s my Happy List,” she said. “Go make one.”
And so I did. “Dear Clara,” I wrote at the top of the page, “Here are some things to think about before you lose it.”
- Remember the time Mom dragged you and Dad to a pilates class and Dad farted really loud while attempting to do crunches.
I kept writing.
- Stanford isn’t a realistic depiction of the outside world. Just ‘cause you don’t run a company at 19 doesn’t mean you don’t have any value.
From there, the bullet points just kept coming. I jotted down instances where I laughed until I cried. I wrote about times where I almost died. I wrote about every funny instance that I could think of, every precious thought that I hoped to never forget, all the terrible things I’ve experienced and how I’m still here in spite of them. Seeing them all written out in front of me – their length extending well beyond my list of short-term responsibilities, covering how much I’ve learned, how far I’ve come, how fortunate I am to be where I am – made it significantly easier to take a step back from everything, to simply continue to be, and to wholeheartedly enjoy this sheer existence.
So now, when I am bogged down in all that I have yet to do, when the bullet points of numerous responsibilities and obligations are firing and hitting my heart and mental health in the wrong places, I pull up that trusty Word document and read away. I finally have a list to be excited about, and just by having it, the other lists don’t seem all that bad.
Contact Clara Spars at cspars ‘at’ stanford.edu.