This past week, after a long night of writing, reading and generally feeling frustrated at and about my pile of work that seems never-ending, I got into bed with a book that I first read when I was ten. I’ve read the book maybe six or eight times over the past many years, and often it feels like I know the characters inside the story as well as my own family.
Almost as soon as I learned to read, I started to re-read. I indulged in what I’ve come to call “comfort reading.” I have a list of maybe thirty books on rotation that I turn to when I’m feeling particularly tired, stressed or off-balance. Most of them are books from childhood: Anne of Green Gables, Little Women. It’s heavy on nineteenth-century English novels, classic fantasy novels and science fiction. I have a book to suit each mood and each set of intimidating circumstances: friends, romance, school, work, travel.
And yet, I am self-conscious about this re-reading. I don’t like to talk about my need to re-read books from childhood or books that tend to be classified under subgenre headings like “Romance” or “Fantasy.” As an English major, I’m supposed to be focusing my attention on “real” literature, the stuff that people in tweed write volumes with two-part titles about.
So I do my re-reading out of sight, a private self-indulgence that I don’t want my professors — or my highbrow friends — to find out about. Then it occurred to me that most people have something they do that they prefer to keep private, for fear they’ll be judged about what it symbolizes about their character or intellect. Yale has a culture of encouraging students to avoid disclosing embarrassing or vulnerable sides of themselves. Instead, we are taught and re-taught to focus on meaningful pursuits and taking ourselves and our education seriously.
How do we reconcile this, then, with our very real need for some small self-indulgences that make us feel safe?
I decided to find out. This past week, I had to lead a getting-to-know-you game (you know the kind: Everyone has to think of something to share about themselves, usually something completely trivial). I decided to ask the question that has been bothering me: What’s your greatest self-indulgence? Everyone in the group laughed awkwardly, but when they saw that I meant it — and was prepared to share mine — they ’fessed up.
The answers varied: Some watched bad TV shows, some read trashy magazines (something that I, too, have been guilty of, much to the chagrin of my feminist mother), some read niche blogs religiously. Few of us were comfortable talking about these proclivities, but we all did them whenever we could.
I’ve been wondering ever since what seems so damaging about these personal revelations: Do we really believe someone will think less of us for admitting to a passion for the Kardashians or chick lit? How much is this judgment completely self-imposed, as the product of our own embarrassment? Or how much is it the product of an external environment, like Yale’s in which certain activities are privileged over others?
I don’t have easy answers to these questions. But what I do know is that having a conversation with this group of people made me feel like I knew them intimately in a very short period of time. I don’t need to know your favorite color, ice cream flavor or birthday: I know the thing you do when you’re feeling stressed or anxious. And you know the same about me.
The actions that we do repeatedly define us, and we should feel comfortable being open with our indulgences if they’re legal and don’t cause harm to others. And while sharing rarely feels easy, it allows us to build community and discover other people who love what we love. In the end Yale’s job isn’t to make you as pretentious as possible, it’s to challenge you to be more yourself.
Zoe Mercer-Golden is a senior in Davenport College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.