I've spent a large proportion of the last few mornings walking alone to the library from my room at 7am, trying to balance a Greggs coffee and the stack of books I thought I would need but turned out to be useless in one hand, whilst the other cradles my iPhone as I scroll through the same social media feeds I’ve already seen twice in the half an hour I’ve been awake.
Ok, so the last part of that isn’t actually true, but its necessary to complete the image of the streams - even at 7am - of millennials who fit that description, swarming up the cobbled streets of Durham towards the library.
In fact, I’ve taken to listening to podcasts on my unfortunate treks - a welcome near-replacement for the books which I haven’t had the opportunity to read and won’t again, until summer. And I’ve actually ended up quite invested in Oprah Winfrey’s series ‘SuperSoul Conversations’, where she speaks with ‘celebrities’ for want of a better word - she describes them as ‘thought-leaders, best-selling authors, spiritual luminaries’ - about their work and their lives, their beliefs and their feelings. Essentially right up my street.
Anyway, her two-part conversation with Maya Angelou really stuck with me (actually brought me to tears twice - which is not ideally how you want to start a 12-hour day in the library). Above the beautiful purity of the relationship between the two women who have been friends for years, above the almost-majesty of Angelou speaking about everything from her childhood to how she understands God, above everything there was one thing she said that simultaneously caught me off guard and filled me with so many thoughts and feelings that I’ve still not finished unpicking.
“Courage, Oprah, is the most important of all the virtues” she says, as the first episode draws to an end, “because without courage you cannot practise any other virtue consistently.”
When my friends finally join me at the library - after having promised to match the early rise but inevitably sleeping in (I love them, but they know this is true) - we’ll coordinate breaks and escape the card-scanning barriers in a Breakfast Club-esque emergence into the fresh air to drink too-expensive, too-hot coffee on the ground together.
On the same morning I’d listened to this quote, we’d ended up sat in silence, baffled by the streams of students, heads lowered, rushing around the university on their own, consumed by the stress that has infiltrated the air above Durham since the beginning of third term. It was actually really shocking to sit in that reality check for a moment.
The system that we live in has created this for us, and forced us to believe that these years of our lives spent under crumbling pressure are necessary for success. It has defined for us what success is. It has trained us to compete, always and ceaselessly and brutally.
It takes courage to live in that system and it takes even more courage to challenge it. As Angelou continued: “you have to do [courage] in small ways”. And I think thats whats been keeping me going through this term and, in fact, always. The people and spaces in my life that foster the courage that the system is training out of me.
A Jewish community has been such a defining source of courage for me, as have my family and the moments like this one, where a shared look with friends is enough to reassure me that there are people who see the need for change and want to make it.
In short, that's my lasting insight for anyone struggling through exams or just struggling - find those people and spaces that help you build up the courage and confidence you deserve to feel and help others to find that courage in themselves, for it is the most important virtue of all.
Asha Sumroy is one of the JC's regular student bloggers for 2017-18. She is studying at Durham University.