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Taking reflective angle in life

WALLACE Stegner called it the "angle of repose." He was referring to the angle of an incline at which an object comes to rest without continuing to roll down. Stegner applied this metaphor to fictional characters in his Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel of the same title. He was describing the act of coming to rest, reflecting on life, and reconciling oneself with surrounding conditions and people. We could learn a lot from such a simple action.

We sometimes move through our lives with treacherous speed, barreling downhill with our eyes fixed on what lies ahead. This is only natural - the tendency to remain focused on what will come several steps ahead was instilled in us long ago. Early in life, we learned that the most important aspect of education is gaining the skills that prepare us for what comes next. It's necessary to build a strong foundation of math, science, English and social studies in middle school, so that we can build onto that base once we get to high school. Much of high school, in turn, is spent striving to learn the skills that prepare us for college. And for many, college is the site of training that will give us either the practical knowledge to succeed in the working world, or the knowledge base and analytical tools to pursue a graduate education.

Maybe we can't do anything to change this forward focus on a large scale - the way our lives are structured, we naturally must give attention to the next phase before we are done with the present one. But our rush to move forward is evident on a smaller scale as well. And on this level, it may be something we can control.

The increased attention we give to the future is evident if you listen to the conversations we usually have with one another at this point in the semester. The most common questions are, "What courses are you taking next semester?" or, "What will you be doing after graduation?" We only rarely ask one another, "Did you enjoy that class as much as you thought you would?" or "What would you do differently if you had this semester to do over again?"

I'm not suggesting that we shouldn't be eager to plan our futures, or that being excited about what lies ahead isn't positive. But being reflective and retrospective has value as well.

It is often said that the importance of studying history is that only by committing ourselves to remembering the past can we avoid duplicating previous mistakes. But this can apply just as much to the history of an individual as it can to the history of the world. We can apply the same idea to our daily lives: It's important to examine the past to become better able to deal with the future.

Reflecting on the past few months of our lives allows us to evaluate what we have done, and to learn from that. We can identify the things we did right and continue to do them. We can determine what we did wrong, so we don't keep doing those things or doing them the wrong way. And we can see what we didn't do at all, and hopefully determine whether those things are important enough to make an effort to do in the future. In short, taking the time to look backward instead of forward once in a while allows us to learn from what we've done right and wrong. We can learn from living, but only if we stop long enough to do so.

So as we finish out this semester, don't think just of what you're going to do over Winter Break, the classes you're going to take next semester, or which tropical locale will be your Spring Break destination. Think also of what you've done this past semester. Think about all that you've accomplished. Think of the decisions you've made, both good and bad. Think about what you wish you had done differently, about your regrets, and why you regret what you chose to do. Think about what effect a professor, a lecturer, or another student has had on your life, on the way you think, on the things you value. Think about what you've done, what you haven't, and what you could have.

As we rapidly roll down the incline, let's allow ourselves a few minutes to come to rest at Stegner's angle of repose - to reflect on our lives, to take stake of the past semester. After that, we can continue rolling downhill as fast as we dare. But we'll at least be a little better equipped for the journey.

Bryan Maxwell's column appears Wednesdays in The Cavalier Daily.)


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