Late October and early November signal the start of a special season here at Georgetown. No, I do not mean the start of fall, although I do always savor the increasingly brisk mornings. Rather, the special season I hail is what I have come to call “extension season.” It is the time when the best intentions and most fastidious planning of generations of students inevitably run up against the accumulation of assignments, the hard limits of days that only last 24 hours, bodies that need rest and flu bugs that seem to detect when the immune system is at its weakest.
I have found that extension season occurs nearly like clockwork at this time each year. Rather than become angry about these requests, though, I have come to see it as one of the most important, and often misunderstood, times in each of our journeys through the year. Maybe because it often creeps up on us, striking when we had hoped to be on top of everything, it embodies a particular kind of wisdom. It invites us to see — and embrace — our human limitations and to share those limitations with one another in a spirit of honesty and compassion.
Now, I should be clear. Extensions are not a part of every student’s experience every semester, and they probably should not be. Deadlines are good — for both teacher and student — and we do well to keep them most of the time. But extensions are also good, and, when they are needed, given and used, they remind us of the deeper truth that our lives are bigger than any one assignment or even several assignments. They put class, papers or exams into perspective in a way that we would rarely choose if this stressful time did not require it.
Over the years, many of the most thoughtful, self-reflective conversations I have had with students occurred when they realized they needed an extension. In some cases, it has allowed students to voice how their commitments are becoming unmanageable, and the extension is a first step toward reorienting their energies. In other cases, the moment has come when they recognize their physical or mental or emotional health is suffering, and taking some extra time and, in some cases, getting additional care, is what they need to be able to live to the fullest. In other cases, something has come up in the student’s family or relationships, clubs, internships, service or jobs that just makes staying focused on my class impossible.
But I also know how hard it is to ask for an extension. I remember well the first time I went to a professor — one of those whom I most respected — to sheepishly ask for a two-day extension on a paper. It felt like a total failure to me, and I was sure he would be disappointed at my apparent lack of planning or dedication to his course. To make matters worse, I wondered if, after this extension, he would think less of me and perhaps not want to have me in his much-coveted seminar.
To my absolute surprise, he granted the extension, no questions asked. Then, with his usual good humor, he told me two obvious truths: First, there was no way he could read all the papers on the first day; second, it would be far more satisfying for him to read something that I considered my best work. The extension, which was just a few days long, was like opening a valve on my overstressed, overpressured self.
Jesuits often speak of one of St. Ignatius’ directives — the “presupposition” — in which we give people the benefit of the doubt in what they say and do. Extensions, when we trust ourselves enough to ask for them and give them, and are kind enough to accept the real human limitations that give rise to them, do the same.
Sometimes I wish there were a way for us to live in the spirit of “extension season” every day, helping ourselves and others feel free from the stresses to which we often given outsize importance in our lives. If we did, we would truly be free to do our best work and to be our best selves.
Fr. Matthew Carnes, S.J., is an associate professor in the department of government and the School of Foreign Service, and he currently serves as the director of the Center for Latin American Studies. As This Jesuit Sees It appears online every other Tuesday.