I don’t normally have a problem waking up early — 10 years in the Navy have probably ruined my sleep cycles forever. But one day, after I’d snuggled in my covers a little too long, I walked into a fully packed, early morning math class and found myself sitting cross-legged on the floor awkwardly trying to make my butt cheeks comfortable on the thin carpet’s pitiful attempt to pad the concrete. At this point, the absurdity of the situation washed over me. “What am I doing sitting on the floor at a place like Stanford?” I thought. Before I had time to process that one, a more insidious version crept in: “What am I even doing at a place like Stanford at all?”
The situation made me reflect on a well-written article I’d read in The Daily by a girl who sets seven alarms and gets “gently prodded” by her roommate in order to wake up with enough time to do her makeup before an “early morning” class. I use quotes because, let’s be honest, 9:30 is not that early, but don’t jump at my throat just yet. I’m not writing to teach you sleep hygiene or evangelize the virtues of waking up early. If you stay up until 3 a.m. desperately failing to solve triple parametric integrals, getting up at 8 a.m. sucks no matter how you slice it. In fact, I applaud her for the discipline of having any morning routine at all — not many people do.
Here’s a thought though: If you’re having trouble getting out of bed in the mornings, it might just be that your bed is too comfortable.
“Hold up, Nestor!” you might want to tell me. “I live in the dorms/barracks/cupboard under the stairs. There is no unicorn magic in any parallel universe that could possibly make this miniature twin-size, turned-over-thirteen-times lump of pipe insulation that they call a mattress feel comfortable.” But I’m talking slightly bigger picture here. I’m talking about life.
Imagine you’re staring out at the Pacific Ocean in the middle of the night during a Southern California winter. The froth of the water’s edge splashes flecks of sand on the toes of your boots, and the wind whips through your wet white cotton t-shirt like the bite of a hundred small animals. On the “Forward, march!” command of the instructors, the whole line of trainees, with 200-something arms linked at the elbow, start walking into the grey, rolling waves. The water rushes into your boots and makes your socks mushy, while the line of icy wetness climbs higher up your leg with every step.
Once you’ve walked deep enough, they tell your group to turn around and sit down, and every abrasion and laceration and popped blister burns in the salinity, but you’ll soon be too numb to notice. As the water rushes over you, your entire head feels like a brain freeze. You close your eyes to keep mud out of them, but the sand crawls into your ears and nostrils like a curious insect. In the darkness, you listen for the sound of oncoming waves and try to synchronize your inhales with the breaks in between. Sometimes you succeed, but the rest you swallow in a mouthful of foam, and your lungs patiently burn while you wait for the next chance to breathe.
When the instructors feel they’ve made you sufficiently hypothermic, they order you out of the water and line you up on the edge, facing away this time. They give you a cursory check for injuries and signs of “serious” hypothermia. Then, as casually as if they were asking you to check the Costco sales for string cheese, they tell you to face the water again, link arms and walk forward. They might even make you sing. For us it was usually “Hello darkness, my old friend…” on repeat, as if there are no other words to the Simon and Garfunkel song, but The Little Mermaid’s “Under the Sea” is pretty popular, too.
Every time they pull you out of the water, you hope it will be for the last time. There’s a limit — depending on the water temperature — to how many times they can legally put you in, but it’s impossible to predict. With each step forward you have a choice: Take one more step or turn back. No one can stop you from turning back. In fact, the instructors encourage it. If you Drop On Request, you are promised a dry, fuzzy blanket, a steaming hot cup of coffee and your first full night of sleep in weeks. If you keep walking, you can look forward to months more of the same freezing spa treatments, more sleepless nights, more abrasions, lacerations and blisters, all for a 20 percent chance to be a Navy SEAL.
The 80 percent attrition rate is a notorious aspect of SEAL training. Some trainees fail for medical reasons — shoulders tend to dislocate when you’re holding a log overhead for hours at a time — but most are D.O.R.s, or Drop On Requests: They leave voluntarily. One of the favorite activities for the instructors to have us do to encourage this volunteering was called surf torture, and that’s what I just described to you.
Of course, I never wanted to get back in the water, but when I reflect on those times I realize that there was something I wanted even less: When I left home as a teenager, my family was already struggling, and they were further decimated by the Greek economic collapse. You’re hearing Greece, and you might be picturing scintillating white sand beaches and cute houses on cliffs, but where I grew up was just like every other dilapidated inner-city neighborhood — schools have bars on the windows, and walls are covered in shitty graffiti. By the time I was in training, my parents were already separated, living on opposite sides of the globe, and my meager Navy-enlisted salary made me the richest person in my family. So despite the fact that 1000-fewer mouthfuls of ocean water would still have been one too many, I kept going because there was nothing for me to turn back to.
More recently, years after completing the aforementioned training, I got fired from being a SEAL. After leaving the Navy, I spent three months sleeping in my living room so that I could rent out my bedroom and not have to pick up a job right away. I spent my days studying for my first ever SATs — at 30 years old — and I spent my nights writing college application essays — the longest I’d ever written in my life. Going to bed late and waking up early wasn’t easy, but I did it, not because I had something to look forward to — we all know what admission chances seem like from the outside looking in. It was because, once again, I knew I had nothing to turn back to except a shipwrecked career and a smattering of tumultuous relationships.
So back in the classroom, after thinking about all this, I dug my butt into the cold floor just a little harder in an attempt to make my cheeks extra sore. I took a mental screenshot of that feeling so that next time I had the choice between sleeping in five extra minutes or getting to class before all the seats were full, I would know which choice I didn’t want. It’s such a small discomfort of course, sitting on the floor and contorting my neck for one short hour of lecture, but in that moment I realized that it represents a bigger truth for me: I need things to run away from to keep me moving forward. I would never have made it to Stanford without them.
So next time I look longingly back at my bed and imagine myself getting tangled blissfully in its soft covers, I’m going to reflect on the reasons that brought me here and remind myself that what I left behind is not something I want to go back to. And when I find myself in a stressful situation — whether it is emotional, financial or physical — I’ll do my best to take a moment and let it soak in. I’ll savor it and appreciate it. For all I know, next time I’m standing at the freezing water’s edge, it might be the very thing that keeps me from turning back.
Contact Nestor Walters at waltersx ‘at’ stanford.edu.