Begin Your Semester with the End in Mind

by | Sep 5, 2022 | Education, Spirituality

Many of us are starting a new school semester these days. And it’s never too early to consider finals. Some may think it’s too early to start stressing about finals, but beginning with the end in mind is the best way to sort through all the options students have throughout a semester. In the long run, it may even prevent unnecessary stress. A recent trip to the eye doctor helped me realize this.

In the last few months, I began to notice that my vision was just a little less sharp. Street signs were a little fuzzier and I had to squint to read the whiteboard from the back of the classroom. So, I made an appointment with an eye doctor. We ran through the usual exercises (“one or two… two or three…”) before my prescription was adjusted slightly and the fuzzy edges vanished. 

During the visit, the doctor dilated my eyes to get a better look at what was happening below the surface. A few drops of the dilating fluid and a few minutes later, I was told everything was ok and I was ready to go. However, everything didn’t seem ok. My vision had flipped. The dilating drops had made my close-up vision almost non-existent. I couldn’t focus on my phone, I couldn’t read the numbers of my insurance card, I couldn’t even open a map to find my way home. My ability to see objects close at hand was completely gone and instead, I was forced to rely on my usually less reliable distance vision to navigate the trek home.

 Having my eyes dilated was a quick, routine procedure that, despite its simplicity, upended my world for a couple hours. I found myself focusing on objects far away from me, as they were the only things I could see. 

This experience of having my eyes dilated has become a great source of prayer. The sudden, drastic change in my vision and the way I was forced to navigate the rest of the afternoon made me wonder, “what am I missing because I am so accustomed to seeing it?”

In the Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius’ manual for discernment, the saint shares with us a spiritual form of dilation, one that helps us see the end and prioritize what is close to us. Ignatius counsels that if we are having trouble making a decision, we should focus on our death, picturing ourselves in the last moments of our life and make our present, pressing decisions from that perspective. This is referred to by many as ‘memento mori’ or ‘remember your death’. Focusing on objects far away helps us to not worry so much about challenges that may seem daunting now but are trivial when viewed over the course of our whole lives. 

And so this is why we should begin this academic year thinking about finals. If we keep the end in mind, it can help us prioritize the present. Here are some questions that might help you think about the coming semester:

  • What are you hoping to learn this year?
  • What experiences do you want to have?
  • Imagine yourself turning in your last exam or making those final corrections on your last paper. What activities are you glad you invested time in and what activities just don’t seem that important anymore?

By asking these questions now, it’s easier to maintain a healthy perspective focused on what is important and setting aside what may be insignificant in the end.

And as we think about our final exams, let’s reconsider what they are. Rather than something to dread, I think finals are an opportunity for gratitude and savoring. 

Another of Ignatius’ tips for prayer is savoring. Ignatius writes that we should savor the graces we have received, continue to remember and enjoy them long after they pass and continue to be grateful for them. When you finish your final paper, or turn in your final exam, take a moment to reflect on how much you have learned this year, on the wonderful experiences you have had, and the ways you have grown. By spending a few minutes savoring this unpleasant exam, you can recognize it for what it is, the grace of learning. 

Focusing on final exams may not seem like a great way to spend the rest of the semester. But if we see final exams as what they really are, a reminder of how much we have learned this semester, and we keep the end of our semester in view, we can invest our time and energy in places that are most important. Then, when finals week does finally roll around, we will see it for what it is, a chance to be grateful for what we have learned and a conclusion to another great semester.



Brett Helbling, SJ   /   All posts by Brett