Tuesday evening, I had the privilege of seeing Junot Díaz speak at Saint Thomas More Chapel. I have never once been to a tea, often missing the great thinkers who come here.
Díaz’s talk was full of insights: on intersectional and institutional oppressions; on internalized patriarchy and colonialism; on what it is like to be a writer of color and to be forever obligated to speak on being a writer of color. The man dropped truth-bomb after truth-bomb. At one point, the audience emitted a collective “Mmm” of approval. Díaz also spoke about fear — particularly, on the intense fear he feels rolling from audiences like the one at Saint Thomas More. Audiences of immensely bright and privileged individuals who are so scared: scared to screw up, to walk out of step. So desiring always to make the right decision, where the “right” decision is the one that results in respectable (read: commodifiable) success.
It resonated. I am scared. Scared that in my four years at Yale, I did not carve out a more purposeful path, a more fulfilling one. Scared that I do not have what it takes to get into medical school. Scared that maybe I should have gone into finance. Scared that I will forever be living hand-to-mouth, as my mother does waiting tables. I am scared that my Yale degree, for all the enormous wealth to which it’s exposed me, will soon hang on the wall in an apartment whose rent I can barely afford, forever a reminder of the privilege I once had but could not sustain.
I harbor a not-so-secret desire to be a writer. I have only taken two courses in the Yale English Department, but have loved every moment I spent in them. They have been a reprieve from a course load that largely involves pre-med requirements, which are consistently soul-sucking and artless — always filled with fears of falling below a curve, of the implicit competition that comes with knowing we are all looking to fill a series of limited slots.
In his talk, Díaz criticized the tendency of educational institutions, particularly the Ivies, to professionalize their students’ pursuits. He explained that the arts are disappearing from schools because we cannot cash in on them. The classroom is not the place for cultivating art — it is the place for producing workers.
As Díaz said this, I could not help but think about the audience of which I was a part: many of whom, like myself, were first-generation, working-class students. It is we who are cut most deeply by the paradox to which Díaz alluded: that to survive in a society whose framework is fundamentally capitalist requires one to be motivated by money, but to be motivated by money is to sell out. Still we share a very real need to pursue a career that produces income. We have no one to fall back on.
I once told my mother that I no longer wanted to apply to medical school. That I felt I was following a path because it was well-defined, one that would secure me financial stability. I told her that what I really wanted to be was a writer: that if I could have, as Díaz does, a far-reaching platform to change the way people think about something, to address structural violence — that I would much prefer doing that over constant memorizing and calculating. I told her I wanted to remove myself from the production line. My mother asked me, “But do you also want to starve?”
I do not. And so I am afraid. Afraid of what it means to have to deny passions for practicality. Afraid that our society does not create spaces for screwing up, for walking out of step. We lack the social nets to take risks and we lack an appreciation for what those risks often produce. And still I cannot afford to be “just” a writer.
I often wonder whether our passions ought to guide our life choices. Whether happiness is the paradigm of a good life. I don’t have an answer. But I don’t have a better alternative. Something in me says it shouldn’t be about how much money we have in the bank. And I believe, as Díaz does, that if we are truly passionate for something, it will find a way into our lives. I graduate in May, and I don’t know what I’m doing afterward, but I know what I want right now: to stop being so damn afraid.
Shelby Davis-Cooper is a senior in Timothy Dwight College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.