To commemorate the new decade, I flipped through worn yearbooks and folders, eventually stumbling upon a letter I wrote to myself five years ago. While the grammar was painful, the line at the bottom of the page captured my attention. Its motive was simple and pure: “I hope you expand the knowledge in your scientific field.”
Themes of exploration were prevalent throughout my youth, in fields from biochemistry to English. I was guided by a curiosity that unabashedly approached even the most theoretical questions; my pursuit of truth upheld the ideas and values that were worth defending. But Yale changed me. My thinking has shifted from the macro to the micro. I wonder less about the bigger picture. My focus has instead shifted to the self. While classes serve as moments to expand thinking, the overarching concern of college— our future careers — still looms.
Upon returning home for winter break, something felt lost; I felt aloof. The air had acquired a strain of unfamiliarity. Time and distance away from home made my memories less recognizable, less potent. In my head, the future advised me to cherish the trip home. Cherish the shots of nostalgia, it claimed: “Enjoy how you have replaced your old dreams with better ones.”
But is this true? Or is it disillusionment? As I reacquainted myself with friends, teachers and clubs, each interaction revived something that had faded. Talking to my English teacher reminded me of the Socratic method and when everyone would speak freely and passionately about truth, discovery and the good life. That English class made me think deeply about the values I wanted to embody, in a more personal way than I have at Yale.
Some courses definitely push students to grapple with these profound questions, like “Life Worth Living.” Judging from the popularity of the class, Yalies appear to recognize the need for philosophical reflection. But we are still more driven by the career arc that accompanies our degrees as opposed to what our fields of study stand for. Thinking about ideas and values themselves — prior to our place with respect to them — is forgotten. Many Yale students treat college as an elite trade school; as a consequence, the liberal arts education collapses. The self gains too much emphasis. Yalies commonly blurt, “I want to be a CEO. I want to be a politician.” What about the actual causes towards which we are working?
To step outside of Yale and look at our pasts is to remember why others believed in us. It is to humbly recalibrate ourselves, since threads of old dreams may still be worth pursuing today. Emblems of our younger lives work surprisingly well to remind us of this forgotten perspective. Take, for example, our families, which we take for granted when we are young. An ease fell over me as I returned to the cozy atmosphere of my house, speaking once again in my parents’ native tongue. My father’s playful teasing and home-cooked meals made me aware of one of my most cherished goals: to make my father proud of the son he raised. He always wanted me to pursue the ideas and visions I loved, regardless of material or social concerns; it’s why he sacrificed so much of his own dreams for me. People in and outside of our families have invested in us so that we may live more boldly and more freely.
There is indeed a place for accepting change and moving on, but we are often too quick to make those judgments. The most rudimentary markers of success — power, wealth and prestige — are promoted by the lofty standards that accompany anything Yale. We can happily choose to buy into this vision. We are phenomenal at deluding ourselves to believe what we want, although in this case the “we” is really “others.” But while these external expectations can affect us no matter what armor we wear, the extent of their impact is in our control.
As frustrating as it sounds, the solution requires balance. Without practical thinking, we may never realize our pursuits. But as we see now, ethical action matters more than ever. We should not become gripped by our personal roles insofar as we forget our essential values. That’s why the past matters. With it, we can evaluate ourselves truthfully and accurately. At its very best, reflecting on life outside of Yale can rectify disillusionment; at the very worst, we simply remember how far we’ve come.
Our self-narrated identities are continuations of our past selves. The old teachers, family reunions and letters to ourselves are the most impactful reminders of the meaningful dreams embedded in our past. They provide new ways of looking at ourselves. Above all, they prompt us to reclaim our authenticity.
EDWARD SEOL is a first year in Berkeley College. His column runs on alternate Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .