The Collegiate Laws of Life Essay Contest asked Penn State students to explore ethical values and intercultural issues, and their talent for expressing their views in writing.
Kimberly Jurczyk, ’16, Paterno Fellow and Schreyer Scholar in English, and Communication Arts and Sciences, won Third Place for her essay, below, responding to this prompt:
“Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe.” ~ Albert Einstein
What are the roles of mistakes? Do mistakes hold merit in the molding of one’s character or do men and women fall into the trap of repeated and fruitless wrongdoing under the guise of normalcy?
“A Persistent, Patient, and Resilient Mistake”
What I have learned over the years is that mistakes can vary in not only size and severity but also personality. For example, some mistakes are persistent. They storm into your life, appearing again and again until you begrudgingly acknowledge their existence. Some mistakes can be patient. They can latch onto your identity and become an everyday part of your routine, waiting for years until you finally learn your lesson. Finally, some mistakes are resilient. They fight against your determination, ignoring your desperate pleas for their swift departure. Mistakes can shake your resolve and force you to question what you think to be true.
The persistent, patient, and resilient mistake in my life was believing a certain kind of narrative. I have known that I wanted to dedicate my life to helping others for a long time. Ever since high school, I would look for any opportunity to help others whether it was a church mission trip, a school fundraiser, or donating blood to the Red Cross. It wasn’t until college that I discovered my true passion: being a vocal activist for women’s rights. I felt that demanding respect, education, and social recognition for women who are not given a voice by their own countries or governments was my calling.
However, I did not hear a chorus of congratulations, support, or encouragement when I told others that I wanted to dedicate my life to fighting for gender equality. Instead, I received confused looks and loud warnings, reminding me of how difficult it was to work toward social change. I was told that progress is inevitably hindered by red tape, that bureaucracy isn’t worth going up against, that social change is a long, difficult, and draining process. I was told that I should work towards something more substantial, more tangible than gender equality. This was the narrative I was told for years from my peers, close friends and family, and even people working in similar fields. I became cynical, discouraged, and angry that something I found fulfilling was being denounced as too difficult, too ambitious, and too idealistic. I started to believe this kind of narrative. For years, this was my persistent, patient, and resilient mistake.
But I soon learned a different narrative when I traveled to Sri Lanka, a place rich in cultural and social diversity. While teaching English in a school and an orphanage, I interacted with inspiring grassroots leaders and members of the community who taught me about the social problems women face. I learned what it actually took to enact social change. Governments can be stubborn, social norms can be deeply ingrained, and cultural practices that marginalize other people can be rationalized in the name of tradition. At the same time, I had teachers show me why teaching girls was invaluable when it came to combating poverty. Brilliant and dedicated activists told me that social change started and ended with girls and women. I was told that victories, even those that seemed small and insignificant, could spark revolutionary change in the social landscape of a country. Slowly but surely, I had begun to hear the right kind of narrative.
The mistake of believing the wrong kind of narrative has not only plagued my life but the lives of many others. We have been told at a very young age to dedicate our lives to something practical, stable, and respectable. We did not learn how to chase our dreams or challenge the status quo. Instead, we learned how to study hard, work more, and dream less. We learned how to analyze things in terms of dollars signs, GPA points, and possible resume boosters. We learned that mistakes are not useful opportunities for growth and self-exploration but catastrophic events that show vulnerability and weakness. We learned that mistakes, above all else, should be avoided and ignored. To this day, this kind of mistake plagues people who are fighting against the chorus and striving toward their passion no matter how difficult, ambitious, or idealistic it may be.
Nonetheless, what I have learned after years of struggling is that mistakes can become our blessings. When we have the courage to acknowledge our mistakes, we learn more about ourselves and construct our identity bit by bit. We commit to the right narrative and vow never to believe the old narrative again. Mistakes can still open our heads, sneak into our minds, and attempt to dissuade us from the truth. But our resolve, determination, and drive can only be strengthened. Mistakes are ultimately necessary, forcing us to question what we know in order to allow us to commit to what we know. Mistakes allow us to finally believe, without an ounce of doubt, that our work is worth doing.