By the time I got to college, I knew I was expected to know how to handle vacations. Ask anyone, from career advisors to benevolent relatives, and chances are they’ll have one thing to say about school breaks: make them productive. In high school, this involved stuffing vacations with SAT prep and volunteer work and praying that you aren’t the laziest over-achiever out there. Even in college, vacations breed a certain level of competitive anxiety. No one wants to return from months of Skyrim to find Joey A. Plus flushed from tutoring children in South America. We’re adults, dammit, and adults aren’t allowed to sit on their asses while all the prime resumé fodder is snatched from the table. As analysts love to remind us, our job options are little more than chum in a shark tank, and Gen Y-ers are the fishies taking internship-sized bites of each other. If you made it to a chic school like Brown, you probably had the lesson drummed into you long ago: vacation time, ostensibly your time, does not actually belong to you.
This pathology of productivity is enhanced by winter break’s inherent weirdness. Too short to find meaningful work and too long to justify total brain death, January yawns like a black hole in a year of frenetic motion. In the back of my head, I know it’s the perfect time to get a leg up on the school year: syllabi and summer applications began the winter as shiny bookmarks in my browser, ripe for the conquering. I spent days drooling over abroad programs—interning for the Cannes Film Festival! Gender studies in London! Communications in Prague!—and with a week left of break, I still entertained visions of victory: entering spring term with tales of dashing adventures, an enviable summer internship in my pocket, and enough reading completed that the possibility of ten hours of sleep per night would not remain mythical.
Instead, I watched 23 episodes of Battlestar Galactica in three days. I would have gotten farther, but I was also working through two other shows with my brother, and waking up earlier than one—even for sci-fi and space battles and Jamie Bamber’s biceps—is out of the question.
Even the knowledge that few friends did better than I does little to assuage my guilt—and how odd that an activity as innocuous as watching television can feel like committing a crime. Once upon a time, vacation was measured in Christmas at Nana’s, building mansions in The Sims, and binge-watching anime in friends’ apartments. But as it stands now, every vacation, no matter how relaxing, carries with it a wealth of anxiety and indecision. Do I allow my brain a well-deserved shutdown after months of hard work? Or is lying in bed and wearing out my Netflix account a waste of my increasingly valuable time?
Family politics make the whole conundrum even more complex. In a family of real estate brokers and psychiatrists and neurologists curing cancer, my decision to concentrate in the humanities (or, as the less tactful relations tend to say, my degree in joblessness) comes under constant scrutiny, and there are times when I wonder whether my life path is a mistake. I can explain until I’m blue in the face why my paper on the feminist implications of Pacific Rim is the best thing I’ve ever done; I can proclaim with complete conviction that a semester studying The Wire taught me more about the world and my own education than all of high school put together. But when I pause for breath and come down from the high of what’s kept me alive through a decade of normalizing education, I nearly always encounter the same expression: condescension and confusion with a dash of pity. If this is their reaction to what I do during term, how can I explain my off-the-clock choices? How do I explain it to myself? I truly believe that there is nothing more important for young adults—young women in particular—than the ability to establish economic independence. I’m already tired of sitting pretty on my privilege; the judging gaze of others makes me ashamed of it.
It’s possible that I’m being neurotic, and these anxieties are nothing more than the emotional scars of an overbearing high school. Over a dozen years of increasingly stressful education have trained me to approach the school year as a Pavlovian gauntlet of self-deprivation—there’s always the paper I should be writing, the reading I should be doing, and having too many minutes to relax just means that I’m not working hard enough. Movie breaks with friends have to be smuggled into the jungle of reading week, and I can’t even remember the last time I read a book for pleasure. When I do have a moment to myself, the staggering number of things I want to do with so little time can lead to paralysis: there are nights when I spend so much time flipping through Netflix that I end up with no time to watch. For this pathology to find its way into the psyche of my winter break is only a matter of course.
Does ignoring responsibility make my vacation a failure? Perhaps. But even the most enthusiastic student needs a break now and then, which sometimes simply means taking a vacation from vacation and letting real life sit idle for a while. In the end, determining the success of a break depends ultimately on what activities you define as productive. From one angle, doing nothing but marathoning Buffy the Vampire Slayer for four weeks is the epitome of young adult laziness. But from another that equals to 100 hours of television, 100 hours devoted to completing a task that at the start seems insurmountable. There is nothing quite like unsticking yourself from the sofa after eleven hours of Lord of the Rings, rising from the ashes of the day, the final credits singing an ode to your success, the detritus of popcorn and candy wrappers scattered like conquered foes. For all that watching television or reading books is a passive act, arriving at the finale takes a considerable amount of effort and dedication. Completing a show might not match summers interning as a Hobbiton tour guide in New Zealand, but it is nothing if not an accomplishment.
Our vacations are limited and precious. In a few short years, breaks that already feel inadequate will likely be reduced to weeks, and the pressure to act like an adult will be greater than ever. In the meantime, treating vacation like a competition is the kind of stress that no one needs—even if the only competitor is yourself. It took me a long time to learn that there are no smug interns or Peace Corps volunteers cackling in the bushes as I start my fifth straight episode of The Walking Dead. Even if there were, I don’t owe them anything. Judgmental relatives and competitive peers only serve to reinforce the fallacy that every action has to be justified. In reality, it doesn’t matter if you’re an MCM concentrator reinforcing your studies or an economist watching sitcoms until the laughter breaks you in half — above preparing for the future or cementing summer plans, your first responsibility is to yourself. Some people fulfill that duty by bettering their situations, and others do it by breathing while they can. Maybe balance only comes from taking pride in both.