The thing that matters is the speed. You do it quick, obviously, or else you’ll burn yourself, but not too quick — because then there’s no point. You want to let the flame lick your fingers, moving slow so you feel the heat, but still at a pace, so as to avoid getting hurt.
The other day someone told me she had never played with fire, but I think most people have, at least as kids. I remember going to a wedding, at a country house or a farm or a vineyard, and I remember candles — candles everywhere. And I remember a grown-up, showing off as grown-ups occasionally do on the pretext of entertaining kids. He took my cousin and me aside, and he said, “Watch this,” and he swiped his hand over a candle — and it looked so cool! So I began to search, within myself, for the gumption to put my hand to the fire.
It didn’t come easy; I was afraid I’d sear my fingers.
I wrote an essay about this, freshman year, for English 120. Not about the game with the candles, but about the underlying generality. Growing up, I thought, was partially about gaining the freedom to do harm to myself. I didn’t mean by this anything extreme, only that the act of leaving your parents’ home and coming to college allows you to engage freely in behaviors that, while not worrisome, are at least questionable. Consider some of the other things I did as a freshman: I smoked, on and off; I drank, more on than off; I blacked out, a number of times.
There’s a sliver of truth in that essay — with age comes responsibility, including the responsibility for your own well-being — but as I read it now, the argument feels strained. I’m inclined to think, instead, that smoking and drinking and blacking out weren’t signs so much of maturity as of a peculiar and mostly harmless brand of stupidity.
I’m also inclined to think that growing up isn’t so much about gaining the freedom to hurt yourself as it is about gaining the willingness to let yourself be hurt. It’s an idea only a step removed from the first, but it’s truer, and it’s especially true of the way we deal with people.
It’s true of romantic relationships in particular, but also of relationships at Yale in general. Certain common denominators landed us in this place — an aversion to risk, a proclivity for overthinking, a tendency to take the long view — and when it comes tying ourselves to other Yalies, we can’t help but know that our relationships come time-stamped. We have four years together, and the four years will end, and sure, we may keep in touch, but what if we don’t?
Watch this: We do our relationships like we play with fire, slow enough so as to feel the warmth, fast enough so as to not get burnt. We have one-night stands, and we grab meals (or we plan to, anyway), but we keep them short. It’s where we’re comfortable: close enough so as to ward off the loneliness that sometimes creeps in at night, far enough so as to avoid being invested in a relationship that is bound to end.
I find myself entertaining these thoughts, and I hate them. They come in the form of a perverse voice that asks, naggingly, “What’s the point?”
The fallacy in that line of reasoning, the one I keep repeating to myself in response, is this: The fact that something will end eventually shouldn’t stop me from enjoying it now. Reasons why are plenty, not least of which is probability. Most relationships, at Yale or otherwise, fizzle out. They are transient. They end. To avoid them on those grounds is to resign myself to a life alone.
And here’s another reason: My happiest memories are those I made with other people, as are my saddest, and that is the point. To err on the side of caution — that is, to prefer quick and far — is to numb myself to life.
So I’m trying to reach closer. To dwell longer. Maybe I’ll sear my fingers, but at least I’ll have felt something.
Teo Soares is a senior in Silliman College. His columns runs on alternate Thursdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .