Joan Didion opened her 1979 essay “The White Album” with the famous assertion, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” She meant by this that we impose a narrative structure on disparate, incoherent events in order to make sense of our world. We seek order in the phantasmagoria that makes up our daily lives.
The stories we tell ourselves impose rules by which we live. We construct an image of who we are supposed to be and live by that image. We are a certain type of person … until we aren’t.
Our self-spun narratives break down under the weight of reality. In “The White Album,” Didion recounts a series of nervous breakdowns she had from 1966 to 1971, when the stories she told herself — about what it meant to be a writer, what it meant to live in Los Angeles, what it meant to be American — became unsustainable.
Didion was a creature of the ’60s who embodied the contrarian attitude adopted by her generation. She told stories about California. She told stories about rock ’n’ roll. She told stories about the hippie movement. The era imposed a rulebook and she played by it. However, as the ’60s progressed, she became increasingly disillusioned by the culture she inhabited. The music of the time became uninteresting, free love became dangerous and politics became violent. In the wake of the Manson murders and race riots around the country, Didion could no longer tell the stories she had been telling.
She began to suffer from extreme anxiety and paranoia, and made several visits to psychiatric facilities. Realizing the assumptions on which she had built her life were arbitrary and meaningless, her mental health continued to deteriorate.
At Yale, we tell ourselves many stories. Life at a college campus, whose foundation is the extracurriculars and social groups we are a part of, is particularly ripe for telling stories. We all have ideas about what it means to be at Yale. We are either STEM kids, humanities kids, athletes, intellectuals, fraternity brothers or musicians. The stories we tell ourselves shape the ways we go about life here.
However, eventually these stories fail to hold up. The ideas that shape the contours of our reality prove insufficient. We discover new interests or we make new friends or our political views change. We encounter new perspectives and different narratives. We change.
I dwell on Didion’s life because last week, 1,373 bright freshmen moved into Old Campus and its environs. They are high-achievers who have a set of expectations to fulfill. They have heard stories about what it means to be at Yale that will determine what classes they take, what extracurricular groups they partake in and whom they decide to be friends with. They will look for their “thing.” They will try to fit the image they have created for themselves.
To the class of 2020: If you cling to your stories, you will inevitably restrict yourselves. You will only be friends with those who fit into your stories. You will only engage intellectually with topics pertinent to your stories. You will only consider views that align with the stories you tell yourselves.
Question the narrative that you impose on yourself. College affords the unique opportunity to reconstruct the person you think you are. The social and intellectual landscape of this campus provides a plethora of identities with which to experiment, modify, keep or reject. By meeting different people and trying new classes and activities, you can avoid falling into a one-dimensional, dissatisfying and ultimately untenable niche.
Dare to reimagine your personal narrative. There is no better time to do it.
Daniel Tenreiro-Braschi is a sophomore in Ezra Stiles College. His column runs on alternate Wednesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org