A: “How are you?”'
B: “I’m good. Just stressed. I have a midterm on Thursday.”
A: “Oh, you have a midterm? I have two midterms this week.”
B: “Two midterms? I have three papers.”
A: “Three papers? I have four job interviews.”
Sound familiar? In his 2014 TEDXDuke talk, Trinity junior Kari Barclay provided this script to a certain conversation we hear over and over again on Duke’s campus, whether it be riding the bus or walking to class. It’s humorous, but it also embodies those two words that have been said so many times they’ve become trite--“effortless perfection”--the notion that one must have the perfect grades, perfect body and perfect social life, all without making a visible effort. As a result, we are so busy trying to prove to the world--or maybe just to each other—that we have it all figured out, that we don’t have the time or the willpower to open up to others when things get a little rough. We don’t know how to be vulnerable.
The issue with this opening script is that it defines the dominant narrative on campus, which creates an all too narrow characterization of Duke students as 1) always busy doing impressive things and being “successful” and 2) always being completely in control of their lives and everything going on within them. So what happens when we aren’t always okay or things don’t always go as planned? Because, here’s the thing, a lot can happen in four years— as a super senior returning for one last victory lap semester, I can promise you that if your college career looks anything like mine has, you will have experienced your highest highs and lowest lows by the time you walk across that stage in cap and gown. And I can guarantee you that every person who walks up to receive their diploma has a story to tell.
So why are we so afraid of sharing our failures and learning from them? Why are we so intent on hiding our scraped knees and wounded pride? I’d argue it’s because the dominant narrative is far too convincing, to the point that when we inevitably do struggle, we feel ashamed because we are so certain we are the only ones, that we are utterly alone.
In high school, I always wanted to be the friend who others would come to for help, but never asked for anything in return. I never realized that this one-way flow of vulnerability was a total cop out. It impeded my ability to form closer relationships because what makes a bond truly special is the mutual trust that goes along with knowing you have both given each other a piece of yourselves. It takes courage to know that people can’t hurt you if you don’t give them your heart, but to give them that power anyway. College has taught me that this is not only the better way, it is the only way. Many of us come to Duke without ever having felt the need to ask for help. So when we face challenges that require us to do exactly that, our sense of identity feels threatened. But that’s kind of the point.
The dominant narrative can make it feel as though our time here is about two things: studying and partying. Yes, both of these things are fun and take up a large portion of our time, but if that’s all you can say you’ve done at the end of four years, I’d argue you didn’t get your money’s worth. Almost every graduation speech I’ve heard to date has made the same assertion: “DARE TO FAIL.” “It’s not how many times you fall, it’s how many times you get back up.” “Fail young, because when you fail young you fail cheap.” But I would go so far as to say-- there is no such thing as failure, there is only learning.
Struggling is what makes you more than just your default self. Taking chances can get messy, but it’s the only way to own your identity and figure out exactly why you are the way you are and do the things you do. Sometimes you have to walk into a mistake, even if you know it's not going to end well, because you can’t live life protecting yourself. Sometimes you just need to know what the wrong choice feels like, you just need to live something out to the end because that was the route it was meant to take. Don’t go too crazy, but allow yourself to feel things and even to get hurt. Hurt is nothing more than the measure of how much something meant to you and mourning is only a representation of how well we attached ourselves to the life we are living. Our emotions remind us we are alive, and as we experience the higher highs and lower lows, our perspective, our understanding of what life can be, is expanded.
My hope for this column is that it will be a place where the dominant narrative can be deconstructed. A place where what it means to be a “Duke student” can be fleshed out more fully to include the good and the bad, the pretty and the ugly. I hope to send the message that you are not just “Duke” when you ace a test or when you paint yourself up as a Cameron Crazy. You are still “Duke” when you need to go to CAPS or you cannot find a job before graduation. You are never alone. And because of this, I think we need to strive to show enough of our own vulnerabilities that others don’t feel such a need to hide theirs.
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our editorially curated, weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.
Cara Peterson is a Trinity senior. This is her first column of the semester.