Unexpected challenges can crop up at any moment. See them as an opportunityPexels

Exactly three weeks before the first of my final exams, my mum arrived in Cambridge to take me home for a couple of days’ rest. I had become ill with painful tonsillitis and needed some resting time for the antibiotics to kick in.

I struggled with this. It’s my final undergraduate term in Cambridge, so I had planned my revision carefully, almost to the day. I was excited for upcoming social occasions, and in the midst of it all, I was heading home with a sore throat, an exhausted body, and plentiful penicillin. It was a setback, a spanner in the works. Best laid plans, and all that.

Setbacks and difficulties are a fact of life; to live is to be challenged. It can be painful, and the challenge comes in many forms. We walk a road often overshadowed by the unexpected, the doubtful, and the painful. But when setbacks or difficulty, struggles or suffering come our way, we still have this: a choice.

Setbacks and difficulties are a fact of life; to live is to be challenged.

We can choose to respond to setbacks with courage and creativity, searching for light even in tough circumstances. When ill with tonsillitis, I had the choice to either stay in Cambridge, look after myself, and try to work; or I could go home to my family, rethink my revision, and recover properly.

In the midst of finals revision, the second option seemed counterintuitive. It can be hard to lay aside plans and embrace rest - but that is what I did. And I found that that choice was the best way to respond to the situation.

At home, I spent two days in a hammock in the garden, sleeping and reading books. I had a chance to catch up with family, and I revised in a new way by listening to set texts while I rested, rather than by trying to cram and memorise. Although all of this was unplanned and different, I found that the setback became an opportunity, an opportunity to gain some helpful perspective on exams, learn a new way to study, and enjoy a little oasis of rest in a busy term.

Despite any fear felt or setback encountered, there is always a creative and courageous way to respond.

One of the books that I read in the hammock mentioned a scene from C.S. Lewis’ Voyage of the Dawn Treader. It was the moment when the Dawn Treader enters the oppressive gloom of Dark Island. Fear sets in; all but one of the occupants of the boat wanted to turn back. Lucy, one of the protagonists, whispers to Aslan for some reprieve from the darkness. In reply, there appeared ‘a tiny speck of light ahead…It did not alter the surrounding darkness, but the whole ship was lit up as if by a searchlight.’

I mention this because unexpected setbacks or difficulties can often feel like darkness - whatever those difficulties are, and however minor they are or however long-lasting they become. But on the strength of Lucy’s whisper, there was light beaming onto the Narnian ship; on the strength of hope and courage, there can be light in the midst of any darkness or struggle.

I found this to be true in the hammock at home, reading and resting. I took some time to note down all of the good things that I had encountered despite the illness. I listed over 40 things that I was grateful for, from penicillin to strawberries and from sunshine to parents, even in the midst of this unexpected situation.

In the potential overwhelm of Exam Term, these are the things to hold onto. That despite any fear felt or setback encountered, there is always a creative and courageous way to respond that results in experiencing light.


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If you’re finding this term difficult, for whatever reason, it’s okay to take time out, to do the seemingly counterintuitive thing and get some rest when you need it. Exams and grades do not define you, and all that you ever need to do is the best that you can with the time that you’ve got. That is all that anyone can ever ask of you. This piece of advice from my mum is one thing that’s held me steady through many years of exams.

Asking for help is always good, too: message the group chat and let friends know that you need a hand; get in touch with family or college so that they can support you. There is often challenge, but there are always people to help you meet that challenge, as well.

And, in the end, each of us can rest and work, safe in the knowledge that light shines in the darkness, and darkness cannot overcome it. Through setback or difficulty, all will be well.

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