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zero bandwidth by Alan Z. '23, MEng '24

it’s not burnout if you have to keep going

You know, lately, I’ve been hearing this sound. Everywhere I go, like a tick, tick, tick.

— tick, tick…BOOM! (2021)

Recently, I’ve had this overwhelming feeling creeping up on me, this slow crescendo of static which sits inside my head, just behind my eyes. This noise makes it impossible to think, or to make any useful decisions at all. I wake up and feel every muscle in my body already sore, regardless of how much physical activity I’ve done in the past day.

This unshakable exhaustion is not new to me. It is, of course, that same burnout which I felt just as I began my junior fall. Its extent, however, is new. How did this happen?

The key, as I have observed, is to genuinely care for each other.

— “IHTFParadise” (2015)

Last semester was extremely hard on me. In most senses, I was doing fine. I was organized, turning things in on time, attending most of my classes, enjoying my time in them, so on and so forth. It seemed, however, that there were simply crises constantly sprouting up around me. One friend, and then a neighbor, and then another neighbor, and by the end of the semester, I had spent a lot of time and energy on making sure the people around me were okay.

Why is that so bad? After all, the value I hold closest to my heart, my self-described raison d’être, is “being a small, positive part of other people’s stories.” Shouldn’t that be enough reason to motivate me to expend a little more emotional energy to make sure the people around me are okay?

The answer here, is, of course, yes. It is. Sometimes, though, you go too far, and in retrospect, it feels like I carried so many other people’s grief that I almost forgot my own. Now, slowly, it has roared back to life, carrying away my emotional energy for itself. I suppose that perhaps this, too, is the cost of caring for people. I must care for myself too, and that is easy to forget when the people around you have “bigger problems.”

A friend told me, freshman fall, that you don’t have to save the world; that all you have to do is save one person, and that person is yourself. Five semesters later, I think the truth is much simpler than that. The truth is that you couldn’t save the world, even if you tried. You can’t be the sink node for other people’s pain. Not a hundred, not ten, not even one. All you can do is dampen it. To catch someone who is falling over, you can’t just brace for impact and hope for the best. You have to fall with them a little, and if you’re not careful, you’ll lose your balance just as quickly.

You still try though, whether out of a sense of obligation or out of a sense of genuine care. You try, and you fail, but sometimes things get a little better, and wasn’t that always the goal in the first place? To make things just a little bit better for the people around you? Not, of course, that I am any sort of hero, nor do I want to be considered as such. Sometimes, I just wish I had more energy to care for both myself and the people around me.

Many, when things get dank, will feel their grip go / We stay tranquil, spirits high, pulses low

— “On the Right Track,” Pippin (2013 revival)

Regardless, life continues as it always does, and in order to recover from my grueling fall semester and winter break, my goals for IAP were to relax and cook. I needed time off, needed time for my own thoughts, needed time to breathe. I succeeded for some time—cooking every day for a week, writing poetry again, attending the occasional orchestra rehearsal for Pippin. Then, things started going wrong again, and then there was THINK application reading season, and then there was Mystery Hunt, and then there was preparing for this semester, collecting arrangements for Asymptones, organizing various policies for Next House, and then, and then, and then—

I hit the wall, in the middle of an IAP which was supposed to be my relaxation time. Each of those independent activities was enjoyable. Together, they cost too much. I needed to relax; I needed to recover.

Then, the semester started.

The first week was miserably busy. I had Pippin essentially every evening for four hours, sometimes longer, sometimes shorter by just a hair, and I had 84 units of classes.01 the equivalent of seven full classes. the 'average' or 'sane' MIT student takes 4-5 classes a semester. Then, Pippin ended, and I dropped a class for the first time,02 a blog post for another time in my sixth semester here at MIT, and, still—

starting over, starting again, starting once more, starting—

— poem from 21W.77103 advanced poetry workshop (2022)

Nothing. I am still exhausted. What’s going on now? Why am I stuck at zero bandwidth? 

The answer is certainly not schoolwork. I’ve chosen heavier workloads in the past and survived, and although I continue to choose more classes than I perhaps ought to, over time, I’ve come to terms with the fact that that’s okay. I genuinely value the experiences I get out of my classes immensely, on both the technical and artistic sides of the spectrum, and I can handle it, so why not? It is perhaps true that more of my classes this semester are either difficult, personally unmotivating, or both, but it alone is not the source of the strain.

The answer is also certainly not activities. The two extracurriculars I’ve wed myself to this semester are demanding, especially as I have taken on leadership positions in each. I am not a natural leader, but in both circumstances I chose to put myself up for election, because I felt like I had something I wanted to accomplish, and I had something to contribute.  Said differently, these, too, are positions I chose for myself—it’s incredibly important to me to be able to spend time and take care of these communities that I love, and I find that time more satisfying than exhausting. These, too, are not the ultimate source of the strain.

It is finally tempting to blame all those external factors in one’s life, which keep arising with seemingly no justification. The onset of the pandemic and the constantly fluctuating sets of policies at MIT and beyond, such as the absurd decisions about housing costs or the human toll of cutting out spring break last year, decisions all made with seeming finality at a level above your pay grade; the way certain instructors seem to believe that the rigor of their classes is more important than the student body, setting up assignments to coincide with each other and the end of the semester and refusing to record lectures despite having the equipment to do so; or the way you have to tell your whole life story just to get any help from support services, because of course they have to know what you need in order to help you, but it’s exhausting, and wouldn’t it be better if you just stopped asking for help? Ultimately, though, these external factors are not the proximate cause, they are simply circumstances that reflect the world you live in, even if you wish they’d pass.

No, the hardest part of arriving at zero bandwidth, the thing that keeps you in a state of burnout, is that processing emotions takes a certain amount of bandwidth, in and of itself. In many situations, I can feel a whole soup of complex emotions bubbling just beneath my chest, and yet I cannot seem to make sense of any of it. It’s like each of these individual components is still in its completely raw form: the carrots have not been diced, and the onions have been thrown in whole, peel and all. Overall, I know how I feel—frankly, bad—but I don’t know how any of the individual parts of my life are contributing to that feeling, and how I feel about any of them.

You have to keep going. You have to keep going. You have to keep going. There’s no room to recover your bandwidth because you’d have to take some of your bandwidth just to do that. The mantra becomes a kind of rhythmic drumming, beneath the static, beneath the bubbling soup. It is something primal that keeps the embers of a fire burning among the ashes, continuously bringing you into the next day.

You have to keep going. You have to keep going. You have to keep going.

— some deep recess of my brain (2022)

In the background, my thoughts continue to cycle through all the floating agenda items in my life: the classes and activities, the external demands which the world places upon us. When is that problem set due? What’s the next email I have to write, the next meeting I have to schedule? What music are we learning next rehearsal? Have the COVID policies changed on us again with no clear warning? How much do I have to tell S^304 student support services! they are wonderful people who get students the academic and emotional support they need, when they express that they need it. to get the support I really, desperately need right now? What am I going to do this summer? Who am I going to be in two years?05 more future blog foreshadowing :0

In a sense, none of these are the important questions. None of these are the difficult ones which nearly took me down last semester, and continue to threaten me this semester. The important questions are about the people I need to catch up with and check back in on, people I want to give advice to and support, about the individual pinpricks of our lives, and here, well, I’m sorry, reader. I can’t provide you any more details. I can’t tell you more of these stories, because many of them are not mine to tell, but rather the stories of the people around me, in which I am only a minor character. I can’t tell you these stories because they are still too close up for me to tell them with any sort of objective lens.

In another word, these stories are too personal. 

I wish I could give you more. I feel like to fully understand what it means to be an MIT student, to fully understand what it means to be alive and human at this Institute, would require me to explain to you every single atom of this process of being, of caring, of saving and being saved. But, it is also true that the blogs have always been a limited medium. The nature of writing is that one can never be certain whether the emotions you are trying to convey are felt on the other side, regardless of how beautifully written the story is, how well-employed the metaphors are, how poetically the sentences are arranged.

Nothing ever ends poetically. It ends, and then we make it into poetry. All that blood was never beautiful. It was just red.

Kait Rokowski (2014)

What’s the point of telling you this? Frankly, it is an affirmation that MIT is hard. That, although there are certainly many fun parts of the experience, this school will also wear you down if you aren’t careful, and it will wear you down even if you are. The best we can do is to keep ourselves afloat, and do our best to make the paths as clear as possible for the people around us as well.

It is also an affirmation, in a sense, that life is hard. This school, for all its value, cannot shield you from the pain that accompanies being a human being, whether that pain is your own or that of the people around you. None of the circumstances in this blog post would be particularly different if I were at any other institution. I do firmly believe that there is something about MIT, about the mission of care that the students at this school have for each other, that is special. Yet, it is also true that in a society where there is hurt, and in a society where forward progress demands toil, there is little the Institute itself can do that does not reflect those pragmatics.

Or, in perhaps the cleanest expression of the point: MIT is hard only insofar as learning to become a person in the world is hard, but becoming the bright yet caring, gentle yet firm, completely well-balanced person you want to be is and always will be exhausting.

  1. the equivalent of seven full classes. the 'average' or 'sane' MIT student takes 4-5 classes a semester. back to text
  2. a blog post for another time back to text
  3. advanced poetry workshop back to text
  4. student support services! they are wonderful people who get students the academic and emotional support they need, when they express that they need it. back to text
  5. more future blog foreshadowing :0 back to text