There’s a Shel Silverstein poem that reads: “She had blue skin, and so did he. He kept it hid and so did she. They searched for blue their whole life through. Then passed right by — and never knew.”
Growing up, we’re constantly told to be ourselves. We’re told to not add our voice to the background cacophony of shouting masses, but to tune out the chorus, take the reins, and scream our own symphony into the void. It’s one of the first lessons our parents impart to us as they send us off on our first day of school, reassuring us that by staying true to who we are, we will make friends and we will be liked. It’s the moral lesson of countless children’s books: be the unique individual that you are and the world will be a brighter place as a result. It’s the ideology that inspires countless quotes by famous individuals who have somehow wandered into this unforgiving world and made it their oyster.
But they are the exception.
“Be yourself” has time and time again proven to be one of the first lies the world tells us, and by the time we’ve learned to put an abridged version of ourselves out into the unknown, part of who we were initially has already been lost irretrievably.
We’ve all done it before: let out an unfiltered and wonderfully peculiar thought and instantly retracted it with a sarcastic laugh or a change in topic. We put caricatures of ourselves out into the world, afraid that those around us are not prepared, or willing even, to embrace the unapologetic and unabashed versions of who we are. Instead, we test the waters by offering a sample version of ourselves to the world, a small part of who we are mixed with who we think we ought to be.
The issue is, however, that by growing accustomed to putting a mask on for others, by getting used to disguising ourselves from the world, we become hidden to ourselves as well.
Coming to Yale, I have found that this discomforting contradiction only deepens. Instead of being the idealized place I had envisioned, where I would find space to grow and forge my own identity, I found a Yale that was indifferent, stifling even, to anything outside the accepted “norm” of carefully curated uniqueness, a sense of “alt-normal” where everyone is extraordinary in precisely the same manner. While yes, the campus is a welcoming place, encouraging its inhabitants to express themselves, to experiment with personalities and ideas, it has also proven, time and time again, that my naive idealization was simply false.
Moreover, I find it ironic that a campus that encourages diversity is simultaneously a place that seems to bolden the lines that already exist between students of different backgrounds. I had come to Yale hoping that the “us versus them” aspect of being from abroad would grow into a “we,” but have increasingly found the opposite to be true. I have what people call an “international” friend group — we all met at Orientation for International Students and huddled together when the other Yalies washed onto campus a week later out of nothing more than a desire for the comfort and familiarity we had already established. Not a single one of my closest friends is from anywhere remotely near the place that raised me. Yet we are bound together by a desire to bubble-wrap ourselves from the curious stares of those who seem to expect us to understand the nuances of their context without any attempts at reciprocity.
While my initial apprehension towards the wave of unfamiliar faces definitely spurred some of the ensuing divide, and I obviously cannot speak for those around me, I, at least, have increasingly found that no matter how hard I try, there is something irreconcilable between my mannerisms and the accepted ways of behavior — a barrier that, try as I might, I find myself failing to unlock. To paraphrase Joan Didion, it’s like I have the keys but not the key.
I’m not going to pretend to know how to fix this issue, because I truly do not, and any assertion that I do would only be contributing to the need to conform. Maybe my inability to digest the world is a “me” thing, maybe my insecurities and I are entirely to blame for my ineptitude to lay my soul bare for all to see. But, honestly, I don’t think I’m alone in this, and it certainly does not start or end with the campus we share. And this is precisely the issue.
Kids, the world is not your oyster. It’s hard to not concern yourself with what society will think, and act accordingly because the mechanisms that govern our world relentlessly push us towards conformity. In constructing the world we live in we also established a set of norms that push back against individuality. If I am the only me out there in the world, as everyone keeps suggesting, then why does being the only person I know how to be require so much courage?
Hana Davis | firstname.lastname@example.org