Alternate stable states

Alternate stable states

Alternate stable states

Accepting a new lifestyle when enough was enough

March 6, 2023 | Kharis S.

MIT-WHOI Joint Program in Oceanography / Applied Ocean Science and Engineering

I am an adventurer at heart. I have never embraced routine or normalcy and I consider that a piece of my identity, so when I started getting tired of my chaotic lifestyle and craving routine, I couldn’t admit to myself that maybe I needed a change. Despite fighting against it, that change finally came about and I’m learning now that maybe I am ready for some stability in my life after all. It made me realize that graduate school isn’t just a pivotal time for my education and career, but also for my personal life too. I’m learning to not only accept that change is happening but to embrace it too. 

Routines are for losers—or so I thought

When applying to graduate school, I couldn’t imagine being “stuck” in one place for five years. I’d been doing short term jobs and traveling for the past three years, so the longest I had committed to living in a single place was three months. I loved that lifestyle and was most at home when I was living out of my suitcase. One reason for choosing to go to MIT was the structure of my specific program, the MIT-WHOI Joint Program in Oceanography, where we spend two years in Cambridge and then three years on Cape Cod. It was much more approachable to commit to a year or two in one location than to five years for other programs. I thought that by not staying in one place for long, I wouldn’t get too stuck in a rut during that time. 

I ended up starting my PhD during the pandemic. We were all in a rut of sorts, as staying in one place became a global norm. I lived with my best friend and we made the best of it, exploring the outdoors and having cozy movie marathons. But I was antsy. Like many, I had never experienced such a sedentary and isolating environment. I wanted to live out of my suitcase again, experience new communities, cultures, foods, and environments! 

When we emerged from intense lock downs I found community through MIT, with former undergrad classmates, and with friends of my roommate. I also started commuting to Cape Cod Tuesday through Thursday each week for lab work and classes. I spent every fourth weekend with my partner, visiting him in Virginia, him coming to Boston, or meeting halfway between. I was honestly having a blast!

I’d gone from a hermit-like existence during lockdown to feeling like I was living three different lives at once! I am naturally social, have terrible FOMO, and have the nagging feeling that I’m not doing enough if I don’t have plans 16 hours out of the day. So for a while, I was loving this lifestyle. But I was tired. It took a while for me to figure it out, but then I did some math and realized I’d gone over a year without sleeping in the same bed for five days in a row. It was too much, even for me.

In over my head

I was living out of my suitcase. I never fully unpacked. I couldn’t really complain; I enjoyed all of my travels  and I valued each of the communities I had built, but boy was I getting tired. I stretched my “always on the road” mentality so far and for so long that normalcy sounded nice. Routine. My own bed. My own spice collection. My time to do nothing. When I first started feeling this way I didn’t know what to do with it—the idea of settling down felt so foreign, I tamped it down and traveled even more. Instead of my partner just spending the weekend at my apartment relaxing we went to the White Mountains. I said yes to everything, until I was down to spending only three nights at a time in any one place. Kharis travels. Kharis is always on the move. I couldn’t accept that it wasn’t good for me anymore.

Maybe routine can be nice

Just as quickly as it started, it stopped. The time had come for me to move to Cape Cod, which meant no more commute—one bed the whole week with all my spices every day. On top of that, my communities converged. A few of my Cambridge friends moved down to the Cape too, I now lived closer to my Cape Cod friends, and my partner and I moved in together. Finally, all these parts of me settled with me in Falmouth, MA and I could not feel more whole. 

I suddenly had routine, something I would have never thought I’d be thankful for in a lifetime. I learned that it’s okay for your wants and needs to change over time, and that they are not all that define you. I am the same Kharis I always was, but with a tad more acceptance for not trying to do it all.

In ecology we have a term called “Alternate Stable States,” which is the idea that if you perturb a system enough it will undergo a regime shift and transition to an alternative version of that ecosystem (different biota, food web, etc.). It is often an equally suitable and stable ecosystem, just different.  I think that is what happened to me: I stretched myself so far that I slipped into an alternative stable state. My new stable is completely different from my old one, but I am equally happy with it. I also had to allow that change to happen. I fought it at first, but accepting the change was half the battle.

Take a look at your own lifestyle—are there any changes that you’re fighting? Graduate school can be a stressful time of learning and growing academically, but it is also an important time to grow as a person, find balance in your own life, and let change happen.

I’m so thankful I finally did.

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