Grow or perish.
This phrase has become a mantra of sorts for me in the two years since I inscribed it on my
side next to a crescent moon. I think I’ve always lived believing some version of this phrase,
and that is why that passage from Atlas Shrugged made it into my collection of quotes. I grew
up full of questions, always wanted to know how, why, what for. And the answers stuck, somehow.
I started collecting facts and trivia, and this knack for remembering made school come easily.
I was good at it, I excelled, I got As. It was what people knew me for. Sara — the nice
girl who got As. I thought it was so important to keep learning and I thought that if I kept
getting As I would be succeeding in this goal.
I thought that to stagnate was to fail, not to get As was to fail, and that I would perish
if I stopped growing. I wouldn’t really be living if I wasn’t growing. I was goal oriented.
In high school this meant improving my personal performance on the track team and getting the
best grades. I needed the grades to get into college — college was the goal.
In my first year at Smith I didn’t have a tangible goal. I still wanted the A, but that “why” was
not so clear. I made a connection with my HP, though, and she became a friend and mentor who
encouraged me to be involved with the house, with SGA. I began to develop my new plan, my new
goals: house senator first year, HONS and senator sophomore year, HP junior year, and (dared
I even hope?) SGA president senior year, following in my friend’s footsteps. Being involved
with the house was rewarding: I had a family there, I had support and it was fun.
In the meantime, school got hard. I had to study, which I’d almost never done in high school.
Also, I just plain didn’t like most of my classes. I didn’t know what I was going to do with
them in my life as a whole. I didn’t know who I was when I wasn’t the girl getting As. I thought
for a minute that I might be a rugby player, but it didn’t fit. I cared too much about friends
I didn’t particularly like. I saw myself as perishing because I didn’t see that I was growing.
I didn’t see not thriving as an opportunity for growth. I had already buried eight high school
friends and classmates and I acutely felt that life was short, that I needed to do something
really meaningful, but that I had no inkling of what that would be. I felt paralyzed and depressed.
Sophomore year I felt on track. I was HONS, I was senator, I had found my major and liked
my classes again. I had friends and mentors who understood me, my goals, my struggles and these
women inspired me. I thought I knew who I was and I wanted to commemorate that. I wanted a
I didn’t know what that tattoo would be, but I would figure it out and draw it on for six
months to be sure absolutely sure I liked it. My best friend and I spent hours brainstorming.
I wanted it to mean something. I finally pulled out that notebook of quotes, and there, at
the end of a paragraph, it was. Three words: “grow or perish.” I was in love. I
made my friend draw it on my side next to a crescent moon, and by the end of the week I was
I kept it a secret. I had done this for me. It was to serve as a reminder that I must never
stop growing, learning, becoming better. That was the danger underneath it all — I would
not ever let myself rest. I must always do, always achieve. I looked at my body in profile
in the mirror every day. Telling myself I was admiring this artful inspiration I had branded
myself with. I began to measure myself by it and by my body. When I was disappointed in a grade
I would think to myself, “Ok lady, you better keep getting better, keep growing or you’ll
fail — you’ll perish like a ship in a storm.”
Exciting things started happening, I was elected as HP for my junior year (all according to
plan). I landed an unpaid summer internship in New Orleans that I created by networking and
sending some ballsy emails (Smithie win!). I was appointed as a student representative to CMP
— another goal accomplished and another step toward SGA presidency. And I began dating
a girl I thought I was madly in love with. I was okay. I was even going to church again, so
I thought I really had it all together, growing in every way — spiritually, emotionally,
intellectually, and even growing resume worthy experiences.
And yet somehow with everything seeming to fall into place, what it actually all did was fall
apart. The internship was not what I expected, the relationship was not healthy and finally
ended, and I failed to take care of myself in the chaos and disappointments of that summer.
I admonished myself for my perceived shortcomings, as if I could get myself to “shape
up” and do better, grow more, when I was already doing my best. All these elements cast
doubts on my abilities to succeed in the coming year, and made me want to give up on the summer.
Instead started making checklists, plans, strategies for the coming year, and at summer’s
end returned to Smith determined to make the best of it — to be the best in it.
But juggling all that I had taken on — five classes, house presidency, CMP and having
— was really hard. And not everyone in my house took to me as president. A small faction
of house council resisted my plans, my ideas. I bent in some things, but it just wasn’t working.
They didn’t like me and there wasn’t a thing I could do to change their minds. I am terribly
ashamed to admit that in my frustration with them, I let this goal that meant so much to me
become something I did not get an A in.
But, when that group of four seniors began to bully me, bully my friends, bully the first
years in the house in an attempt to get me out of office I was determined not to let them win,
not by those means. I began to realize that I could be giving myself a B in being HP and still
be performing in a way that won me the popular vote, still find tremendous growth for myself,
strength in my sense of what was right and true. I began to see that it took me perishing by
failing to be the perfect HP or perishing by failing to excel or perishing by failing to say
no to one more request for a favor in order for me to grow as a person, as a friend, as a leader.
I have since had an epiphany — grow or perish is not an ultimatum. It is a process,
a cycle. This had been right under my nose, or armpit, all along: that crescent of a moon which
waxes and wanes, grows and perishes in turn. I have gone through periods of tremendous growth
and periods of profound pain and struggle and frustration. You can’t always grow — even
trees lie dormant sometimes.
And in the time since my B presidency I have given myself permission to not be perfect, to
not do everything, to not always sacrifice myself just because someone seems to need me. I
have given myself permission to change my goals when they are no longer important to me. I
have found some compassion and gentleness for myself. I have learned you don’t have to be nice
and accommodating to everyone all the time and in fact it is good to walk away from those people
in your life who put you down, who sap your energy and give nothing in return. I have learned
I work well by teaching and by motivating, that I find my best ideas by talking them out with
others and that in leadership I prefer to have a conversation, not make a snap decision. I
have learned I can bring myself back from the brink, pull myself out of a downward spiral,
redefine my rules for myself without being a bad person, without being less than.
I can work on feeling guilt without feeling shame. I can work on forgiving myself as well
as those four girls who made me go through hell in the name of house community. I can resolve
to be more honest with myself about my limits, my holes. I can identify my strengths by owning
my weaknesses. I can go forward without a four year plan, without a concrete goal or end point
in mind. I can find strength in knowing my skills, in cultivating compassion for myself and
for others. I can change the world and do something meaningful by being me, even if I couldn’t
change the minds of four girls. I do not need to punish myself or be hard on myself, because
there are plenty of other people in this world who will be hard on me. I can define myself
for myself and know that even the best definition will not be true all the time.
I can grow or perish, and eventually it will be time for the other once more, and this cycle
will never end.