Marine mammals tend to be remembered as cute and cuddly, usually drawn with a smile and some gentle sound. Dolphins, walruses, and seals all are thought to be gentle creatures. When my family had an opportunity to see a herd of elephant seals, this was the image that I brought with me in mind.

The seals were about as chubby as I expected them to be, lazily tanning under the foggy morning. Gazing at these gentle giants, I felt calmness and serenity wash over me like the surf of the sea. Out of the corner of my eyes, I noticed two of them rearing their heads at each other.

The surf is not gentle in this area. It crashes and splashes on the rocks with the force to crush bones.

The elephant seals, with their razor sharp tusks and several ton bodies, viciously began attacking each other. Drops of red splattered the brownish sand. And the sounds – the sounds! This primitive, guttural snore arose, a note of desperation that I would not soon forget.

Elephant Seal Fighting

This is not cute. This is a fight to the death.

I was mortified.

But alas, this is how nature really is. We get caught up in the pristine balance of life that is portrayed for children, and we forget that the wilderness is truly wild. We want to mask over these unpleasantries with our imagination. In doing so, we take away from what is really powerful about life.

In some ways, my memories of the Summer Science Program can be similarly whitewashed. Selective memory allows us to forget the moments of pain. We want to remember the experience as pristine, and perfect. But. The reality of that world is deeper and much more complex. It’s the difference between a clear and a murky lake. The clear lake may be pretty to look at, to remember, but why would anyone want to plunge into something that they can already see through? Instead, the murkiness of the lake breeds life and adventure. “If life was easy, there would be no point in living through it.” The same applies to SSP.

The blurred over moments include the initial panic of whether or not if I could for in. Was it a fluke that I got accepted? The people here seem so much more talented than I! The moments include late night panic on the second week, when I realized that, oops, I don’t actually understand right ascension and declination. When I stared at my code more than 30 hours after initially finishing, wondering why the hell it still didn’t work. When I burned with anxiety on the night of AP and IB test results, gripped by an unnatural fear that I would be shamed by others, that I wouldn’t get my diploma. When I sat, slightly dumbfounded, in a class where I picked up on only half the math symbols being drawn. When, in moments of sheer panic, it looked like our asteroid was so far perturbed that we would not be able to submit an orbit determination. When, in the early weeks of the camp, I looked envious upon my peers, wanting the schools they had, or the friends they had, or the lives they had.

But all of this only enriches the experience. As said by Daksha, a phenomenal TA, during one of the late late night talks, “Pain brings in the richest, deepest colors into our lives.” These moments make you feel the most genuine, makes you feel the most alive. Without failure, how would we know the sweetness of success?

I’m incredibly thankful to SSP for giving me an opportunity to be scared and alone in such a fashion. I discovered my own identity in these murky waters, and I also discovered true friends that I can count on. The fire and pain has cleansed my soul, strengthening me for whatever hardships may come in the future.

One thought on “Whitewashed

  1. Yes, revel in the joy of being in the company of such amazing people rather than losing hope in yourself

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