EMANUEL: In defense of confusion

These weeks are a time of confusion. Juniors’ interviews for summer banking positions are ongoing. Sophomores are weighing which major to declare. Those seeking college funding for the summer just had to submit their potential plans. Many seniors are still applying to or negotiating with prospective jobs, or scrambling for backup plans in case graduate school decisions are unfavorable. There is a nervous, frenetic uncertainty in the air.

It seems to go hand in hand with the tiny voice in our heads that critiques our choices, whispering: “If only you’d studied for that test in ECON 225, you would have gotten that interview with Bain. You know that, don’t you?” Screeching on repeat: “If you had written for The Politic, you’d have a better writing sample for the Urban Institute!” “Are you sure you want to make films?”

It is moments like these when the self-doubt begins swirling within the already simmering slop of uncertainty. We are left taking refuge in our routines — the classes we have to go to, the problem set we must turn in — as if they can stem the overwhelming rush of anxiety. Am I good enough? Where will I live next year? What do I want to do with my life?

But the truth is, there is something very special about this confusion. Now, don’t bother saying so when I’m in the clutches of the terror that my life will be a’shambles. But in my calmer moments, I can admit it: I’ll probably look back on this period with some appreciation.

What I’ll swear I always loved about confusion is that I am forced to look inward, examine my values and inquire why my work matters. It is unnerving and valuable precisely because it is a lens through which I clarify my priorities.

“Ask what makes you come alive and then go do it because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” That is Howard Thurman, educator, minister and mentor to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Confusion is what makes us ask ourselves, “So what really makes me come alive?”

The danger about confusion is that we get lost in it. Because we don’t know the next step, we take a predefined path that is convenient, but not our own. We decide to go to law school or get an MBA because that is what people do when they don’t know what to do, right? Or, we do something we’re good at, but which sends us home at the end of the day hating ourselves. We wonder as we brush our teeth who ever came up with such prestigious ways to torture ourselves. Or, we pick a top rung of a ladder only to discover midway we don’t actually care very much about what’s at the top. We’ll justify it, saying once we’ve made it, we’ll pursue the dream we’re quelling now. Once we’ve made partner, we’ll start the restaurant in the Twin Cities.

But we’re in such a special place right now. Right here, in college, we’re allowed to try on different hats. We’re allowed to walk two yards in one set of shoes and chuck them at the next intersection if they pinch the toes. After we’ve had those midnight conversations, after we have a hypothesis about which communities and causes we care about, we can test it, amend it, test again. This is the moment for implementing the scientific method. Here, we can take a class in biological anthropology or join the student free-trade group or try one of the myriad jobs not listed by Undergraduate Career Services and see if it is right. If not, well, at least we have more clarity.

But this type of introspection — indeed most forms of searching self-reflection — requires real fortitude. We have to be willing to risk a miserable summer or even year so that we don’t have a miserable life. Sometimes it takes that conversation in which you admit to your roommate that you are not actually happy — in fact, you’re completely despondent — about how you spend your time. Harnessing confusion to gain such clarity demands courage.

The fact is that our very presence here, in this milieu of options, means we cannot use confusion as an excuse to take a predefined path — unless it actually is perfect. Instead, we must search our souls, grit our teeth and take baby steps in our best guess of a direction.

And the struggle is worth it. For in the end, we will have come alive.

Natalia Emanuel is a senior in Branford College. Contact her at natalia.emanuel@yale.edu .

Comments