One night last week after the flurry and madness of Camp Yale had settled, I sat on my bed and tore open a letter I’d written to myself in the fall of my freshman year. The front of the envelope included an apology: “Sorry I didn’t write more, ran out of time!” Writing that letter, the feeling of putting down things that felt stable and true about myself, then watching them immediately collapse onto themselves in the days that followed — that sense of running out of time to preserve a past self — inspired one of my first columns for the News. Still, though I remembered writing about the letter on these pages, I had almost no recollection of its contents. Finally reading my thoughts last week, I wondered if maybe it was because they had turned out to be so terribly banal.
Then, I reached my one pearl of wisdom, tucked in as an afterthought: “I hope you feel as satisfied and gratified by your Yale accomplishments and friendships as you felt about your [high school] ones.” I wonder what I meant at the time by “accomplishment.” I even wonder what I meant at the time by “Yale.” Were accomplishments exclusively the realm of resume items? Was Yale a span of four years or a place or an arena in which to prove myself?
Reading myself today, it feels strange to have so starkly disassociated friendship from accomplishment, because so much of what I’ve accomplished in the past three years is best measured by the strength of the friendships that inform my interests and build the structure of my days.
I didn’t have the vocabulary that I’ve since adopted to talk about the relationships and interests I love and hope to sustain. That night three years ago, writing at my standard-issue desk overlooking the Silliman courtyard, I could only gesture at what I hoped would have meaning by the time I once again held that letter in my hands. In writing that previous sentence, even, I see myself leaning away from ideas of satisfaction and gratification toward more opaque objectives like meaning. “Satisfied” and “gratified” are words that now seem tightly bound to the experience of arriving at Yale as a freshman and to the idea of accomplishment. It’s the feeling that you haven’t simply done the work, but have met some larger goal.
Yet, I don’t perceive the timeline between licking and unsealing the envelope to be ticked with defined landmarks. Instead, I developed a more complicated understanding of process and progress that has restructured the way I feel about milestones and about endpoints. I see them less clearly; sometimes I wonder if I see them at all. In the most positive of lights, static gratification has given way to a desire for purpose, something far more elusive, far more variable.
Perhaps the idea of purpose seemed too heavy for my freshman hand, too daunting, too hard to measure, too inconclusive. Purpose motivates; it doesn’t satisfy or gratify. It comes with no checkbox, but rather creates them. If I could go back to that night, this is what I’d say: I hope you have found the things that give you purpose; I hope that they have given you a thread to follow.
Because I can’t go back, this is instead the standard I will measure myself by this year, and not just at its opening. And it’s a standard I ask you to hold yourself to as well, no matter where you are in your time at Yale. Because a lot of Yale can be dead ends: friendships that don’t click, classes that exist in vacuums, days spent with nothing to show for them. All of these things count against gratification, against satisfaction. Purpose redirects these dead ends and is a reminder that there’s more value in having something that lends itself to continuity than a discrete set of accomplishments.
Caroline Sydney is a senior in Silliman College. Her column runs on alternate Wednesdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .