When you tell the story of your life and experience at Williams College, of what you did and how you grew during your time here, what will you include and what will you leave out?
Do you talk about your frosh entry and the friends you made along the way? Do you mention your sport and your teammates, the club that you were involved in? What you did each summer, your thesis, or your major? Do you talk about your successes, or your plans for post-graduation? Do you bring up your failures? Do you talk about those times when you did something embarrassing or for which you have regret?
Most of the time when we tell the story of our lives, we emphasize the positive aspects: opportunities we’ve enjoyed, challenges we’ve overcome. Sometimes we contrast ourselves from people or situations that we feel we’ve transcended. It’s much rarer that we talk about the things that we’re less proud of: the thoughtless comment we made to a friend or partner, the class that we struggled with, the confusion or failure we so often feel but do not admit to. Much of the time, we don’t want to talk about the times we’ve messed up. It makes us look bad to others, and especially to ourselves. It’s usually just easier to pretend those experiences didn’t happen, to appear seemingly perfect and never to mention those experiences when we recount the story of our lives.
Yet those experiences — of failure, of struggle, of confusion — are part of our story, and they play an important role in shaping who we are, not only at Williams, but in life, as well. So rather than suppressing or repressing them, how do we make sense of those experiences?
Reb Nachman of Breslov, the founder of the Breslov School of Hasidism, lived at the turn of the 19th century. He offered what I think is helpful guidance about how we relate to moments in our lives that we wished may not have happened. He wrote:
All experiences, all thoughts, and all manner of actions that a person does for the sake of a worthy goal: none of them are lost. When you succeed in breaking through the things that hold you back and you complete your task, it is because of all of the experiences, thoughts, and periods of confusion that you had prior, which you experienced and transcended. When you are filled with doubt and confusion, [it feels] as if you are standing on a scale [and not knowing] what to do, with obstacles coming at you from all sides. But after you transcend all of these and break through all of them, then all the obstacles, thoughts, experiences, and confusions become supernal things, even higher in holiness. All is inscribed above for good – each and every experience that you had. Happy is the one who jumps over every obstacle and is able to accomplish her goal. (Sichot HaRan, #11).
Rather than moments that we should repress or suppress, Reb Nachman suggests that all of the challenging experiences that we have are actually stepping-stones on the path to achieving our goals. Rather than seeing difficult experiences as obstacles that hold us back or make us seem weak or unskillful, they are themselves the way that we got to where we are going. And not only that, those challenging moments, those feelings of confusion, those experiences of despair, are not dark moments to cast aside and forget about. Instead, they are critical and holy moments of the journey.
As you complete your experience at Williams and look back on your time here — from the exciting and anxious moments when you were a pre-frosh and newly arrived on campus up through these last few months, spent away from the Purple Valley — I invite you to look at every moment as a step on a journey. And not only that, but to experiment with considering that the confusing and challenging times just might be especially profound and critical waystations on that journey. To entertain the possibility that, as you achieve the goal of graduating from college, those experiences are not only what made this accomplishment possible, but could be the holiest and most profound steps on your path. That rather than being experiences to forget or cast away, the moments of confusion, fear and uncertainty might have unlocked possibilities and opportunities that you have yet to realize or enter. And in that way, that you might be able to shine new light on your time at Williams, and to point the way toward the new life that you now embark upon.
Rabbi Seth Wax is the College’s Jewish Chaplain.