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Valuing the totally obvious

This is a tough one. I’m writing my last column in The Chronicle, so these words will almost certainly be more significant to me than to you. There’s a very strong tendency here to devolve into autobiography, or into banal platitudes: Make every moment count, you only live once, &c &c &c, the sort that sound stylish and impactful when delivered by effete Canadian rappers, less so when printed in newspaper columns.

I spent my sophomore year at a boarding school in central Connecticut, one of the ones where 15-year-olds play video games and chew tobacco in their dorms wearing wax cotton jackets and tassel loafers. I did not enjoy myself there. Fifteen is a tough age: your 15-year-old self is both the most insecure and the most self-centered version of you, and without taking too many words to consider whether these traits are correlated, I’ll posit that anywhere both traits are in abundance, positive social interaction is going to be a nearly Sisyphean struggle. I didn’t make many friends, and the ones I did make weren’t very kind, and I called my mother literally every single day because on any given day that was the most rewarding conversation I was going to be a part of.

I stayed through the end of exams, and not one day more. I went home, I got older, I drove 90 minutes to Duke; now, I’m about to graduate. Certainly, there is uncertainty ahead. But I’m happier now, by orders of magnitude. At this particular juncture, not only have I got precious little to complain about, I’m fulfilled enough to recognize that this is the case.

I’m loathe to take this occasion to deliver advice—in part because it’s unsolicited and in part because it’s clichéd, but mostly because I have no business sincerely giving any kind of advice to anyone. As much more assured as I feel right now than I did at this time six years ago, heading south on I-95 with my proverbial tail between my proverbial legs, I’d be a special kind of narcissist not to see that I’m fundamentally the same person now as I was then. I’ve got more hair on my chest and I can solve more complex math problems, but emotional maturity does not a college degree confer (e.g., before I wrote what you’re reading now, I considered using this column to air my various grievances with Duke, exactly the sort of crass, impulsive idea my 15-year-old self would find hilarious).

But look: For all we talk and write and wring our hands about our school’s intellectual and social environment—buzzwords abound, “work hard, play hard” and “achievement culture” are among the more commonly used—self-centeredness is not a creation of Duke University. I (and you, probably), who have spent the last four years measuring our happiness as a running tally of our successes and failures, will not magically transform our perspective when we leave this place. More convincingly, we‘ve met and will continue to meet people in the course of our adult life who do the same thing. We think this way because it’s easy, easy to consider what’s in front of our own face as the most important thing in the world, to feel satisfied when good things happen in that space and feel deprived when that space gets boring or disappointing. It’s the easiest way for us to find purpose, but it’s reductive and misguided.

I have exactly zero claim to the moral high ground here. I’d estimate that 95 percent of my actions are performed in pursuit of justifying my own conceitedness. The big ironic reveal, of course, would be that I derive the most happiness from the other 5 percent.

Here’s a more meaningful formulation: I derive most of my happiness from others (this is also a convenient way to thank the people whom I owe thanks). From professors that have exerted a greater influence on the course of my life than they could ever realize. From a group of close friends, who over the last four years have managed to convince me that I really am cool, despite all boarding school-related evidence to the contrary. From a family who has supported me in every conceivable way, through all of my many missteps. These people, the ones who care about me, have done more for my benefit than I myself ever could have.

This was a tough one. I’ve written my last column in The Chronicle, and these words are almost certainly more significant to me than to you. I’ve succumbed to the tendency to devolve into both autobiography and now, banal platitudes: Think about other people. Spend time meeting them, invest in them, help them when you can. Still, I’ll ask you, as a supremely talented writer once did, to bracket for just a few minutes your skepticism about the value of the totally obvious.

Ross Green is a Trinity senior and editor of Recess. He wishes Stephen Bryan the best of luck in fixing the problem that is Duke’s student body.

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