Wise advice is a dime a dozen here on campus, where all the upperclassmen rush to stop freshman from making their same mistakes. “Don’t take more than five credits.” “Keep a balanced diet” or “Don’t rub that statue’s shiny shoe; people pee there.” Seniors, shocked at how fleetingly their “Bright College Years” have passed, try to put as much of themselves into the school as they can. Upperclassmen, even sophomores, remember the neuroses that emerge as campus living begins, seeking to ease the fears with some sage words. But by far, the most valuable advice thus far has been: you do you.
As the moonlight rose in the woods of western Massachusetts, our FOOT group gathered around a dying fire and spoke truly from the heart. The mountains have torn us down and built us up, where the wild air mixed with smelly socks to create brotherhood between all of the campers. With the deep bonds that united us, we could speak as free as the birds in the sky. The conversation pivoted towards great regrets, and soon, this gem of advice emerged. If only I could have been more of myself during the opening days of school. If only I didn’t need to imitate others … if only I could be me … if only …
The most striking part of this advice was how different it was from everything else I had heard. Advice, by definition, is a recommendation on what to do in the future. It needs to come from authority or have some gravitas to influence someone else’s life, or even someone’s worldview. Yet, a recommendation to /ignore/ advice, to just be yourself? Instead of viewing it as a cliched phrase, seriously consider what being yourself means on a larger scale. It requires you to first understand your own identity, and then execute it in all that you do – quite the real challenge.
On several of my applications, I wrote that my biggest challenge would be my stubborness. When I believed that I was right about something, I would often charge blindly ahead, shutting out all those who were horrified by my abrasiveness or rudeness. It would be difficult for me to accept another opinion, and only after quiet and deep reflection, would I be able to come to terms with it. While all this is true, it is not my biggest flaw – though, flaw isn’t the best terminology to use. Instead, I hate most that I do not have a solid core identity, that I go with the flow, that I melt into the background, that I don’t speak firmly for myself. Rather than taking time to understand who I was, I would be much happier being the projected image of who I should be, according to others or even to who I wanted myself to be. Rather than creating original works, I would be much happier first understanding the work of other’s and then modifying it. Rather than use unique grammar, I would be much happier with repetition, because repetition was always clear, it would always be classic and right.
I had this epitome while I was meeting new students on campus, beyond the haze of awkwardness and self-evaluation. I would always be open and excited to meet somebody, anybody, for the first time, but it would be a struggle to stay with them for an extended period of time. I always thought myself as a social butterfly for that reason, but perhaps it is instead because I am a social recluse? Meeting anyone for the first time is a science that can be perfected, given enough tries and sufficient confidence. A re-imagined self emerges with each greeting, another facet of the soul. No single introduction is false in any way, but it picks up on the subtle clues of the conversation to be altered just enough to be comfortable. Continued conversation required real character. It needs a heart and soul behind the easy speaking of chitchat. I’ve written on getting beyond small talk, but ironically it seems like small talk is all I’m capable of any more. I’ve lost sight of myself in trying to make others feel comfortable. I’ve lost control of the motivations, the realness within me.
Rediscovering identity is an aimless journey of no benchmarks or markers along the way. It’s the most terrifying thing that I can imagine at this point, because whatever comes out from the journey, you’re stuck with. You can’t just choose to reject identity; you can cover over it, minimize it, seclude it, but never reject it. Identity is part of yourself, and it isn’t something that changes quickly. Perhaps I’m scared of what I would find when I examine that identity. Behind all of the labels and behind all of the accolades, who am I?
But perhaps this is a ridiculous question to ask. Noone exists in a vaccuum, so why am I obsessed with discovering such an identity? Literature exists in relationship to all other printed word, whether it be borrowing or creating. Books and style come only from time, as the good is nourished and the bad is pruned. Eventually, something would emerge, something with a mix of all the mistakes and eurekas of the past. In that distant future, these doubts and worries would blend and soften into a rosy image. Those bright days of the past! How quickly they would go! But living through it is a different matter – living with the self-doubt, the FOMOs, the awkward conversations.
But soon, I will be me.