“I’ll allow myself to be sad once finals are over.” Sitting across from me in the Berkeley dining hall, a friend sunk her knife into her waffle and systematically cut perfect square pieces with frightening speed and precision. She looked up at me, disarming my clear concern with a winning smile. “I’m fine. I promise.” Everything about this girl radiated composure: her impeccable diction, her stylized dress, her nearly mechanical approach to breaking down her breakfast food and emotional trials, alike, into neat palatable pieces she could easily swallow. Just the day before, her fraying long-distance relationship had finally unraveled, as she mentioned in passing between classes. She gingerly held her emotional seams together with pins of piercing conviction, pulling herself up with the tired corners of her determined smile. She would eventually mourn the breakup, she told me. When she had more time. She discarded her empty plate and swiftly went off to her Spanish exam.
A couple days later, while lounging in the L-Dub courtyard, I approached a friend who looked crestfallen and inquired how the pre-med track was treating him. Through a practiced smile, he repeated the phrase I heard myself mutter countless times while in high school like a cynical mantra: “It’s a grind, but a means to an end.” Though he outwardly expressed exasperation at his never-ending P-sets and never-arriving bedtime, a sense of pride in his ability to endure suffering for a greater goal nevertheless emanated from his declarations.
Through the diverse sea of Yalies runs a common line of seemingly unassailable competence. Securely strung to the accomplishments of our past, we confidently march forward, our fragile sense of stability threatened the moment life tugs at the other end. Whether executing a demanding essay or strenuous athletic performance, we’ve come to expect a degree of seamlessness to our excellence, forgetting how to cope when we find ourselves in the throes of struggle, while often deciding to deny it altogether.
The competence we cling to in our academic and professional careers inevitably bleeds into our perceptions of our personal lives as well; the expectation that we can conquer anything that comes our way — or more so, the fear of confronting that which we possibly can’t — has animated a culture of denial.
As Yalies, we’ve come to see ourselves as circus masters: contorting our emotions to fit into impossible cages and locking them up until a future act; walking through fire, our eyes whispering to our wailing feet about the end goal spotted ahead; impressively juggling classes, extracurriculars and internships — too often, willingly dropping the unpredictable, yet pivotal, ball of authentic emotion.
All the while, throughout our impossible magic tricks designed to delude even ourselves, we bow before the faceless crowd that applauds our every performance, our every charade.
We regard our emotions like our transcripts or schedules — expecting that, armed with our will and work ethic, we can remain in constant command of our feelings and ahead of the happiness curve. We postpone sleep and skip meals. We eschew devoting time to extraneous hobbies that we love, or to what could have been a genuine connection had we not deemed ourselves too busy to make the effort. We even perfunctorily cancel day two of the three-day date several Yale students orchestrated for us, since “Yale students have a hard time committing to relationships (or anything!)” after all.
It’s a strange relationship with our own lives, our own personhood, that we develop here at Yale. Perhaps it’s just the continuation of the attitude that enabled us to get here: an attitude of constantly privileging the future over our present condition. Of deriving sordid satisfaction born from our sense of sacrifice. Of perceiving our very ability to sacrifice as an emblem of personal power.
We’ve learned to cling to our sense of control as our foundation, even if it means losing our grip on the bedrock of life. We collectively moan about how busy we are, how much work we have left, how little sleep we have gotten. And behind our ostensible pain scintillates a prideful sense of internal strength.
When I was in high school, a subtle, perverse pleasure laced my disappointment every time I decided to skip a party or social event to study and work. I refused to get drunk on the chalice of immediate gratification and risk stumbling on my linear, determined march toward the holy grail of academic success. The extension of that attitude, though, into the ivory corridors originally sought, begins to constitute a refusal to actually enjoy life, leaving us emotionally and spiritually parched.
We must stop invoking notions of limited time and all-encompassing productivity as buffers from our own reality. We must stop convincing ourselves that all our energetic outlets are occupied and directed elsewhere — that we only have time to unplug, both relationships and passions that don’t fit squarely into sockets that charge our future. We must stop attempting to schedule our encounters with emotions like office hours, twisting our feelings to fit into the negative space on our G-cals, and instead give ourselves the space to indulge in unexpected bouts of negativity. We must stop conflating competence with indifference, power with apathy, and instead recognize that true strength finds its breath in ugly sobs and gleans its blood from broken hearts.
Yes, at Yale we’re all circus masters. But instead of teetering on perfect tight-ropes with bated breath, we must recognize that falling off might just mean finally leaning into life.
MINA CARACCIO is a first year in Berkeley College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Correction, Jan. 18: A previous version of this article read: “I refused to get drunk and risk stumbling on my linear, determined march…” The corrected version reads: “I refused to get drunk on the chalice of immediate gratification and risk stumbling on my linear, determined march…”