I’ve spent the last few months lambasting classmates for ignorance, hysteria, and most recently bigotry. Yet I would be remiss if I did not devote a column, a few weeks from graduation, to how much I’ve learned from my classmates.
This isn’t a carpe diem column, or an exercise in nostalgia: many of the most valuable things I learned from my classmates were painful ones. The very fact that such lessons would make poor inspirational posters convinced me they might be worth a column.
If Yale students deserve criticism for anything, it’s for making the mistake of thinking that the focus of their collegiate lives ought to be either academics or extra-curriculars. I think of both academics and activities as necessary evils, means to learning more about yourself and others, but not ends in themselves.
After four years, I believe more strongly than ever that the really meaningful experiences here at Yale take place not in the classroom but in those late-night conversations where the people you brush shoulders with each day finally dare to let down their guard. In those moments you discover what makes other people tick, what their passions are, what they’re going through, their attempts to reorient their lives in light of ever-developing interests and needs.
At their best, such moments afford a fusion between the intellectual and the social, between the empathetic and the introspective. Ideally, all the elements of one’s life at Yale contribute to inform those moments where you can sit in the company of someone you deeply respect and ask, “What the hell am I doing with my life?”
But many of the deepest and most revealing moments are not conversations at all, but rather come from simply being around people under intense circumstances, watching what they do, what they go through, and how they react.
Yale often seems like a cruel sociological experiment, in which the most intense people around gather to be subjected to ever-increasing levels of pressure. It often makes for a sobering — but enlightening — spectacle.
There was a girl I knew freshman year. When others were confused, she seemed to have it together, we looked to her not for advice, but for the sense of comfort that her presence conveyed. Only after she’d left Yale forever, struggling with suicidal depression, did we begin to get a sense of what her inner world must have been like.
I quickly learned the extent of disjunction between people’s external appearances and their internal experience. I enjoyed learning how much you can give, but took much longer to accept the limits of my best intentions or to concede that some people’s private pain puts them beyond the reach of your extended hand.
I learned that high-functioning, charming, normal people may be enduring tragedies you could not have imagined. Such people, in my experience, have often proved the most fragile of all.
But I also learned that suffering is not purely a matter of “objective” external causes. It does not take the death of a parent to make someone deeply and desperately unhappy, and their grief is no less real.
I am lucky to have learned early on that intimate friends are not just an escape from boredom but a necessity of survival. I am luckier still to have found a critical mass of people who are not merely smart and accomplished but reflective and caring as well. There were times when I found myself needier than I ever could have imagined.
If my time at Yale offered sobering reminders of the value of friendship, my years at the Yale Daily News opened my eyes to the power of surrogate family. Life as an editor of the Daily often resembles NYPD Blue with less nudity.
Overworked, underpaid, surrounded by streams of neurotics, slobs and a few out and out nutcases while engaging in the Sisyphian task of putting out a daily paper, you develop a peculiarly powerful collegiality in extremis. It’s like Band of Brothers without the shelling or the Nazis.
I’ll reserve my most maudlin ruminations for a few of the reporters I worked with as an editor. For reasons I cannot fully articulate, I have come to love them as if they were members of my own family, based not on any expectation or event, but a sense of shared experience and deep, unarticulated trust.
(Had they made deadline a little more often, I might have come to love them more).
On a campus where few date and fewer date seriously, I was immeasurably fortunate to have been involved in a long-term relationship, which did more for my growth as a human being than my classes and my pituitary gland combined. I suspect that kind of learning can only occur in the context of an intimate relationship of some duration.
With your friends, you can mask your faults or have them serially excused; in a serious relationship, you don’t have the luxury of restricting their access to you to your better moments. Romance is like a spiritual colonoscopy; it demands you face the things within yourself you’d rather ignore before they develop into serious problems.
Dating someone for years on end demands that you get over the half-buried remnants and scars of your adolescence. It’s made me grow up as nothing else has.
I’m ready to move beyond the mania and melodrama of Yale life, the papers and the protestors. I’m more reluctant to leave the people who have done so much to expand my sense of the sad and spectacular variety of life, be it at Yale or beyond.
Eli Muller is a senior in Silliman College.