Ideas that Bind Us

This piece appeared in the WEEKEND section of the Commencement Issue for the Class of 2014.

The four years I spent at Yale weren’t the best years of my life. But they may end up being the most intense years of my life. There was the first day of orientation, with all its strained and tired smiles. The friends lost and the failures admitted since then. Terror at the idea of potential, of something slipping away. There was the semester I didn’t get out of bed. At one time or another these were extreme to the point of nausea: the most humiliating, the strangest, the wildest years.

Halfway through freshman year, I became preoccupied with personality tests. Today, they seem about as helpful and interesting as horoscopes, but I revered them then, scrolling through long descriptions and examples nightly. It seemed like a way of ordering the world – of ordering myself. “Yes, so-and-so is SUCH a 4, that must be why he reminds me of another friend XYZ — because they are both N’s!” It was always the reports on my own personality that I loved reading, sometimes over and over, craving an identity. “Tell me what I am,” I begged these tests, “and if you can’t, please tell me what I’m not.”

I asked these websites the questions I did not want to ask myself: What am I like and what do I like? How many lists can I make and stay sane? What’s the worst that could happen? What is vulnerability, really? Who wouldn’t be a pirate? Now what? When will it be okay to be a burden — when I am emptied of rage? When did it get so late, and so dark? Can everything just be both?

Three and a half years ago, the people around us were strangers, with their unfamiliar opinions and assumptions and pasts. Strangers that would be easy to disregard, to judge, to give up on. Whether it was a confession in your freshman suite on a rainy day or a political discussion turned personal in a junior seminar, there were moments we realized we had the power to hurt, and the power to help. You were forced to know that nobody’s pain is easier than yours. Nobody’s flaws are simpler; nobody’s battles are less lonely. And in learning to give from that more private, less comfortable self, we also figured out how to do it without losing ourselves, while finding our boundaries and — hardest of all — sticking to them.

We’ve spent four years mourning our childhoods — the fabled glittery moment before we had lost anything, when we weren’t sure we knew what the experience of anxiety was like at all. We’re not adults now, but we finally sense that becoming one won’t be automatic, and that adults are making everything up as they go along, too.

I feel more relieved than sad about graduating. There was more hell than heaven in these four years for me. But I’m grateful they weren’t because to be easy, they would have to have been an idea, and not this: the place where I know which trees’ leaves will fall first. Where we wrote papers and skipped lecture. Where we taught ourselves to cook. The place where we changed our majors three times, and our minds more than that. Where we pulled all-nighters to finish a project or to get to know somebody, sometimes just because we could. Where we became new, and newly unrecognizable to our former selves. Where we cried until our eyeballs hurt, and had to at least smile at that. Where we huddled during the disasters we remember well and the dancing we took for granted. Here is where we let our friends down and let ourselves down, all the while marking our borders of empathy. This was the place where we forgave ourselves. Where we dreamed, where we sacrificed. Where we fell in love. This was the place.

Contact Cindy Ok at cindy.ok@yale.edu.

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