Fig Trees and Choice


Kathryn Zheng, Co-Editor-in-Chief

Disclaimer: If you came in here expecting a well-structured, coherent piece, I’m sorry. Also, I’m not very good at choosing, so I don’t think this should be used as advice either. It would be like taking advice about how to maintain a friendship from Caroline Calloway.

If there’s one good thing about quarantine (or maybe bad thing, to be honest), it’s that I have a lot of time on my hands to think. Most of these thoughts, to be honest, are fairly unproductive ones, like if I should sacrifice an hour of sleep to watch the horrible Easter film Hop with friends who live halfway across the world or if I should just wake up, look at the clock, and burrow down under the covers to sleep for another three hours until I’m woken up by my mom’s midday vacuum session. But others are more relevant ones, I suppose, especially for high school seniors.

With coronavirus closures, seniors like me may have lost many of their treasured end-of-high-school rituals, from prom to graduation to simply goodbyes to school acquaintances we may never truly talk to again. But other rituals aren’t even “may have losts” anymore. Admitted students days, one of the critical ways through which seniors often choose their college, have been cancelled across the board. Instead of in-person talks and celebrations, tours, and the formation of new friendships, there are Zoom calls and virtual tours—better than nothing, of course, but not a replacement for the real thing. 

So choosing now, for many students, is perhaps more difficult than ever before. What I’ve been thinking about a lot recently, though, is the feeling that comes after choosing—not really regret, but more like the knowledge that one road has been closed. 

The school I’ve committed to is one I love. I love the campus, I love the students I’ve had a chance to talk to, and I love everything from the strong academic programs to the residential housing options to the vast opportunities I’ll have access to while there. But—maybe because I haven’t visited this school since the summer before my junior year, maybe because I have close friends going to the options I forewent by choosing this school—sometimes, I feel a small tinge of “what if?” 

My favorite T.V. show currently (I swear this is relevant!) is The Good Place. The character I identify with the most is the neurotic, anxious, unable-to-choose Chidi—paralyzed by choice, often because there is no wrong choice, and damned as a result. In an attempt to counteract this, I made extensive pro-con lists (with point values!) when it came time to choose. I talked to students. I read blogs. I watched videos. I asked for advice from everyone, from high school friends to college friends to family members to strangers on the Internet who claimed to know everything about colleges. And all I came out of it with was a hole in my stomach and a gnawing anxiety that, somehow, I would regret my choice. That one day, in my thirties, when I felt unsatisfied or saddened or somehow unfulfilled, I would go back to that spring when I was choosing between colleges and want to reverse everything, to choose a school I turned down.

Of course, reality isn’t that simple. So much of our lives is determined by what is already innate within us, not where we spend four years. Yet on the other hand, so much of our lives is determined by where we spend those fateful four years—the people we will meet, the professors who will change us, the classes we will take, the experiences we will have. And that’s the terrifying part. The people we’ll meet—what college tour guides always care to stress as the best parts of their school in conspiratorial whispers at the end of their tours—aren’t going to be the same at every school. Cold comfort that every other student making this choice knows this as well.

Because I’m a basic teenage girl who enjoys calling her music taste “indie” when it’s really no such thing, and because I love poetry and books that make me feel sophisticated even though I’ve been participating in almost every one of my Zoom classes from the comfort of my bed, one of my favorite novels is Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. My favorite passage from that book, coincidentally, is one about choice. It’s a bit too long to excerpt, most likely, but I’ll link it here. In the passage, Plath’s protagonist views the different paths her life could take as figs on a fig tree—and ultimately unable to choose, she watches helplessly as the figs all wilt and fall to her feet. She, like Chidi, has been doomed by her inability to choose. 

I chose, in the end, after recognizing that there was truly one question I needed to answer:  which experience would I regret not having more? And so I chose. I don’t know, still, if I answered the question correctly, maybe because it’s less like an AP-style free response question than a question a motivational speaker would ask you and smile benevolently at no matter what your answer was. But I hope I answered right.