.006 Defamiliarization {Or: Why I am Withdrawing from University}

When I dove back into school this September, I was expecting the transition to be smooth and easy. I thought I would pick up where I left off in first year, except this time I’d go to bed earlier and manage my time more effectively and eat more salad. I wanted to have a quiet semester: no spotlight, no major life decisions, no pressure. The healthiest thing, I thought, would be to live at a mature, steady pace for the next few months with intentional focus and direction.

That’s what I thought.

In reality, rather than gaining healthy habits, I found myself walking around with a sense of aimlessness and feeling a little bit sick all the time. I played the piano for two hours a day, went on extended walks or runs, took pictures, made abstract sketches, wrote vignettes and bad poetry, and more: all on top of the other work my six courses gave me. It felt wrong, like something was constricted or cramped up and all of those extra things were my attempt at gasping for air or massaging out a tight spot.

Generally not one to make impulsive decisions based on a whim or emotion, I thought it was a phase. It would pass, I told myself. It had to. Despite this attempt at a positive mentality, however, I would still go to class and wonder what on earth I was doing there. I’d try to slide it away, hoping that this season would end quickly and that I’d start feeling fulfilled by my studies. September was almost over when an acquaintance asked me how school was going and I answered with a blunt: “I hate it,” which took her slightly aback and surprised me even more.

At some point I started thinking about dropping out. I’d talked about it before, jokingly, but suddenly I began thinking about it seriously. I, the one who competed for grades, the one who followed the rules, was contemplating dropping out. This forced me to look at the situation and ask myself some honest questions: ones that, frankly, I really did not want to ask.

The next week of my life looked mostly like me having extended conversations about life with some very wise people and sketching out some other possible life plans. After much contemplation, I decided not to drop out. It seemed like the logical conclusion and the safest plan. I told those wise people not to let me talk about dropping out anymore. I wanted to stop shifting my allegiance and changing my mind. I wanted to stick to my decisions.

Essentially, this didn’t work out for very long.

The reality is that trying to become someone you are not will almost always come up short, somehow. My massage therapist originally went to school to be an Engineer. I asked her how she went through all those years of school to become something she knew she wasn’t. She told me that, somehow, you always end up coming back to what you were made to be. It might happen very late in life, the realization, or you might catch it early and turn things around, but eventually you’ll explore, whether in thought or in deed, in hobby or in occupation, the person you were created to be. You’ll come back to yourself: your story may just unfold in a more unconventional way.

Once I finally made the decision to withdraw, I fully committed. I cut ties, cancelled interviews, officially withdrew, wrote a proposal, and backed out of a contract. It was a huge hassle and it hurt at times, but every step felt closer to freedom and my motivation slowly returned.

My time at this University is coming to an end. My plans (and most of my back-up plans) include returning to school in September, studying the one thing I probably should have been studying this whole time, but I wouldn’t allow myself to pursue (which is another discussion entirely). This means, though, that I have a huge empty space between now and September that did not exist before. I have some ideas of how it will be filled, and they mostly include people and writing and art and work. Beyond that, I don’t know. It all feels terribly risky and irresponsible, but there’s a freedom attached to it and doors continue to open for me, unwarranted.

There’s a term we use in English Criticism called “defamiliarization.” Essentially it is the idea that one of literature’s functions is to show us a truth that exists unseen by revealing it from a different angle. It means that it usually takes something to knock us out of our “familiarized” state, out of our numbness, to shift us into a teachable posture. That’s how I’m thinking about this space, this season. I’m in a defamiliarized state and I’m trusting that I’ll grow more into the person I actually am as I take a few risks and learn old truths from new places.

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