Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
September 19, 2021

Reflecting on my first chapter in Stockholm

By ELIZABETH IM | February 20, 2020

COURTESY OF ELIZABETH IM Im looks back on her decision to study abroad in Stockholm this semester.

Last month, I came across a New York Times essay by Ann Napolitano. In her piece, Napolitano shared that she had been writing letters to her future self since the age of 14. Every time Napolitano opened a letter from her past self, she saw how her values and self-understanding evolved over time.

As a diary keeper myself, this essay was resoundingly relatable. Every time I journal, I think about what my future self would see in my writings. Would she understand the confusing emotions better than I do now? Would I feel disappointed, surprised or sympathetic? Would I remember that moment?

"One of the lessons in these letters is that our lives have chapters — I just happen to have an envelope to mark each of mine," Napolitano wrote. If each of our lives is a book with chapters, then each of us is a protagonist in our own right.

But where am I now?

According to John Yorke’s Into the Woods: How Stories Work and Why We Tell Them, stories can be divided into the “three-act structure.” “Act 1” introduces the thesis, “act 2,” the anti-thesis and “act 3” the synthesis. All the essential building blocks — the Protagonist, the Antagonist, the External and Internal Desires, the Inciting Incident, the Journey, the Crisis, the Climax, the Resolution — exist within the story itself and in each "fractal" of the story, whether it be the acts or the chapters.

Following this structure, I have already experienced the Inciting Incident of my current micro-chapter: Stockholm.

Before coming, I thought about how this big change — leaving Hopkins for a semester and spending 120 days in a completely new environment — would affect me. Even though I wanted it, I was incredibly afraid to make the choice to study abroad. When Napolitano wrote that the letter from her adolescent self was filled with worry, that she had “believed that the stakes [were] so high,” I recognized my own fears.

Like the “Bandersnatch” episode of Black Mirror, I felt that every choice I make will have a big impact and ultimately lead to a different, or even wrong ending. My inner voice haunted me — what if this isn't the right choice?

As of today, I have already been in Stockholm for over five weeks. Roughly one-third of the way through my time here, I am starting to recognize other parts of this "chapter" of my life.

Act 1: This was from the moment I committed to the program until the arrival, which was the start of my Journey. I had External Desire — a want for a change of pace and to have time to reflect on my life, which led to the Inciting Incident of coming to Stockholm.

Act 2: Upon arrival, I doubted myself. I thought that the physical state of being in Stockholm would bring the change itself. I thought I would have more time to relax and reflect. However, I found myself filling my days with busy plans just as I did back at school. As one friend pointed out, movement does not make a part of me disappear or appear: I carry all parts of me everywhere. That is, until I consciously change. Turns out, he was right. 

Moreover, I never saw the sun, and the commute was too long (almost an hour)! I thought I had made a rash mistake. This was a Crisis. However, I overcame my reluctance and began to accept the status quo, which was a turning point.

Act 3: This is where I am now (I think). I returned to my Desire, my initial goal, and focused on why I made the change. My perception changed dramatically; suddenly, I saw the light (though this is probably because the days are actually getting longer). I finally found my pace.

The commute wasn't so bad. I learned to cook without bleeding or breaking something. I found good friends. I continued to keep in contact with my family and friends. I found my favorite spots in Stockholm. Most importantly, as I had desired, I took a step back. I finally found the time to reflect, write and read.

There are a lot of other parts I cannot recognize at the moment. But I am intrigued to find out what my Lack is. In Yorke's book, he distinguishes between what we desire and what we actually need. In other words, what we have been wanting may turn out not to be what we have been needing.

Perhaps I will find out by the end of this semester. Or perhaps this semester isn't the end of this chapter and I'll have to wait years, or even decades. Hopefully that day of realization comes.

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