Over quarantine, I convinced myself I was an introvert. I could think of nothing more appealing than spending the entire day in bed. I had no energy with which to entertain friends, my motivation to take on a project or class as fleeting as a London summer.
On the isolated extreme of the spectrum, I had too much time to think to myself about all those latent unconfronted fears, all the existential spirals waiting to twist themselves around my mind, choking me with their gravity. Upon arriving at college, I immediately went from filling my day with reading and solitary respite to cramming every centimeter of the day with conversations and excursions and unloneliness.
I’m an extrovert, I was suddenly telling people, all these new friends whose majors and hometowns I kept mixing up. I can’t stand alone time, I thought as I went to dinner for the second time that night just to see more people. I no longer craved seclusion. The instant I arrived on campus and moved into a single room built for two, I replaced slow-drunk cups of tea before yoga with rushed runs to the water fountain on my way out the door to meet yet another group of friends.
I wonder whether I only seek out constant social interaction because I don’t want to be confronted with the realities of my thoughts. If I’m debating the importance of political engagement with a new friend, I don’t have to debate myself on matters of mortality and morbidity. If every spare second is filled with yet another FaceTime call with my friends back home, if I accompany and am accompanied by my friends on every fifteen-minute round trip walk to the mailbox, if I’m too exhausted to think for more than a single minute before I fall asleep at an hour I’d never seen before arriving at college, then I don’t have to confront the internal dilemmas that scare me the most.
I realize now that a lot of first-year students felt—and feel—this way, which is both reassuring in that I know there’s nothing absurd about me, and simultaneously deeply alarming because I don’t want anyone to experience that agonizing feeling of complete self-petrification. Freshmen are told to socialize as much as they can, always leaving their doors open for strangers and friends alike. We’re also told to get off to a good start in our classes, to join extracurriculars and affinity groups, to get enough sleep, to go explore nature, to stay in and study, to fill our lives with these dueling contradictions and paradoxical impossibilities. The pressure comes from all sides like an ever-shrinking box that shelters us from what we must therefore perceive as the worst thing of all: failure, which comes at us from all angles like a horrifying and all-encompassing kaleidoscope or panopticon that jeers, kicks and screams from its undying walls. The mirrors reverberate themselves into perpetual light and life, keeping one stuck in infinity. If there’s a way out, it’s a hundred-year labyrinth. How do you move when you don’t know what’s real from what’s imagined, what’s a true threat from an inconsequential mistake or deviation from the norm, a mirror from a path?
I’m entering my third year of college, and I’m still terrified of slipping up, of turning in an assignment late, of missing out on a late-night conversation, of focusing so much on what comes next that my life slips out of my hands like silk. I’m scared that I am stuck on the same scratch of a record, that time keeps marching forward without me, tracing endless and expanding circles in my wake, that one day I’ll wake up and wonder when I was supposed to do all those things they say life is really about—the heartache and the love and the mistakes and the fun.
And maybe that’s why I want to be busy all the time, booking and double-booking myself until it’s impossible to be scared because I don’t even have time to feel my eyes deaden and my pulse awaken. It’s undeniable that I’m a “people person,” whatever that means, that I love to surround myself with interesting people recounting interesting stories. But I worry that today’s freshmen—and sophomores, juniors, seniors, grad students, and professors and everyone else—are so overwhelmed by the constant bombardment of stuff—of people, of videos, of depressing news articles—that we no longer wish to engage with the internal self, choosing instead to focus on that outward projection which is experienced by everyone but ourselves because our internal monologue is too confusing—or rather, demands too much metacognition to truly begin to understand. Thus, I also fear that in trying to experience all that life and, specifically, what college proffers, we will forgo the fundamental human experience of ourselves, of our own interpretations and uncertainties and unanswered or unanswerable questions. To be sure, this is no novel phenomenon; it’s simply pronounced because of the newfound accessibility of the newfound quantity of things to do and see and experience.
Candidly, many of the fears I felt as I drove up to the Chapel for the first time are elevated now, as more and more of my friends announce their perfectly mapped-out plans with long-earned ease and relief. I know many of them are still just as unsure as I am, and that perhaps many more of them will change paths and aims over time, but I still find myself stuck, a spectator to my own Olympic race.
Excuse the platitude, but I hope that in finding each other, we are not losing ourselves. I hope that in seeing the world in more shades and dimensions and from more perspectives and angles than ever before, we are not missing what is truly there. I hope that in holding a million threads with destinations unknown, we are not losing our free will, our destiny, our dreams.
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