Yesterday was senior society tap night at Yale. Hundreds of students wandered and stumbled around campus half drunk, feeling as if they were on top of the world. Hundreds of others didn’t give a shit. And hundreds of others who weren’t tapped tried not to care but still cared. A lot.
It’s hard not to when everyone else seems to have gotten something that we just missed. Whether we put on a brave face and tell people “I’m not in a society,” joke about the stupidity of the whole process, or pretend not to care, it’ll probably take a while before we stop feeling the sting of rejection.
It’s not necessarily a new feeling. For most of us — except that one over-validated Yalie who gets all the prizes and does all the reading and gets into every group (fuck him/her) — Yale is full of little disappointments, of which society is just one example. At times, it seems as if Yale is designed to undo our sanity, our serenity, our well-being. Why should we be crying because we don’t feel good enough, when we have made friends with people we love, taken a few great classes and learned a thing or two about ourselves?
For one thing, Yale is an incredibly trying place. It’s safe to assume that a good portion of us come here with a reasonable measure of self-worth and self-respect. This is inflated at first. We have little bonding sessions with our pre-orientation groups and FroCo groups and we’re coddled in the extreme. Sometimes we forget to call Mom and Dad because we feel so at home.
Then the bloom comes off the rose. We don’t get into seminars. We get rejected from a cappella groups. Our poem doesn’t get published in whatever periodical we think is the bee’s knees.
It doesn’t matter, we tell ourselves. It’s not a big deal. Then we suspect that some kind of motivational speaker homunculus is deluding us with the power of positive thinking. Suddenly, it is a big deal. And then on nights like April 9, we cry, we crumble, we wonder: What was it I did wrong? Why am I not the person they wanted? What was I supposed to do?
Here is a complicated metaphor: Yale is a bunch of nested Russian dolls. Tiny exclusive communities within tiny exclusive communities. And we keep opening the dolls, joining the clubs and running for positions, because we think we’ll find a kernel in the smallest painted doll. Validation! Certainty!
This is an illusion. The smallest Russian doll is just a stupid wood chip, with a too-big mouth and too-big eyes. The smallest Russian doll is the ugliest one of the bunch. In other words, the most tiny, exclusive community will provide neither validation nor certainty. You can join every club and get every title, and still wake up wondering, “Does anyone love me? Is all this coincidence and not merit?”
If you have decided, today or yesterday or three months ago, to stop opening the dolls, know that you are brave. In a way, you are dropping the dolls and facing the truth: yourself. Yourself without the resume, the accolades and prizes.
In 1961, Joan Didion wrote: “To give us back to ourselves — there lies the great, the singular power of self-respect. Without it, one eventually discovers the final turn of the screw: one runs away to find oneself, and finds no one at home.” It’s sound advice. Quit opening the dolls, and when you go looking for yourself, you’ll find that someone’s home.