It’s important to take note of your perspective at Yale. Admissions officers entice us with promises of a well-rounded class and students from different upbringings. While shopping seminars, we are told that professors want students with a diversity of academic interests. A liberal arts education isn’t merely intended to turn us into workforce robots; we’re also shaping our personal views towards life.
Over the past year, my perspective has changed in many ways, in terms of religious beliefs, ideas about morality, conceptions of what contributes to a meaningful life, knowledge about the world, among others. But there is one issue where perspectives across Yale are relatively homogenous. With almost every action we take, we reinforce the idea that everything has meaning and matters. This is alarming.
The “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” is a funny book, but it contains salient truths. One of my favorite stories is about a husband whose wife constantly complains. He reminds her to gain perspective on her problems, but she cannot. So one day, he creates a machine that shows a map of the universe with a tiny dot on it representing her — literally providing a new perspective. Upon realizing her insignificance, she goes insane. Some people may find this story unsettling, but I find it refreshing. It’s an exaggerated tale that reminds us that not a lot, if anything, matters.
Growing up, I used this truth to think about my own problems. Whenever I felt overwhelmed, I would close my eyes, and envision myself as a tiny dot on Earth. I would zoom out slowly, first looking down at my city, then state, then country and finally planet. By the end, I felt calmer, and I would realize most of my problems weren’t that serious. Even more importantly, the idea of what was “serious” was a classification determined entirely by me. Rather than being swept up in what others considered to be important, I could choose what mattered. When I began to choose what I cared about, I felt more ownership over my life. We often forget about our own power in deciding what’s important, and by proxy, our power over our well-being.
This semester, I’ve realized that the thing I have lost since I’ve come to Yale is my perspective. Yalies tend to broaden the classification of a “serious” problem. Everything — parties, clubs, academics, jobs — is something to excel in, something that matters. We work until we cannot push ourselves any more, optimizing our time and ability to do everything to the extreme.
To some degree, this makes sense: we needed this attitude to get here. Yuval Noah Harari, author of “Sapiens,” theorized why humans became the dominant species. He argues that humans are able to unify and complete tasks because we tell ourselves stories. We collectively buy into a story, and derive lessons for our own lives. Social institutions, such as religion and paper money, are examples of the stories we tell ourselves. While this ability helps us structure society, there is danger to free thought. At a certain point, it becomes impossible to distinguish what is truth and what is a universally accepted fairy tale.
Yalies have a special version of this fairy tale. We tell ourselves we are special and destined for importance. Everything we do, then, is to achieve this path of importance. This attitude enables us to be successful, but also means we put grave stress on perfecting every task. When we fail, even on a small scale, it is a catastrophe. We spin individual events — a difficult test or confusing interview — into a narrative of failure, until we live in a near-constant state of stress. We have all bought into this fairy tale, and now we can’t escape it.
I’m not arguing for nihilism. Attaching meaning to our lives creates the potential for vulnerability and joy, providing beauty in life. But it is important to recognize that nothing has inherent meaning. Everything we give meaning to is just that — something we have given, and something we can choose to take away. And it is when we forget our own power to determine meaning that we’re in serious trouble.
We would do well to take a step back and examine what matters. It’s easy to keep pushing these questions aside, saying that we just need to get through this next problem set or essay and then we’ll have time to think. I’ve tried to sit down this semester and think, and frankly, it’s unsettling. There’s usually a lot more uncertainty in our lives after we question what we’ve always accepted.
But perpetually avoiding this self-reflection — even if it’s scary — leads to a scarier result. We’ll never define what values or goals are important for ourselves. We’ll wake up one day, finding out that we lived our lives on other people’s terms. And that is something that matters too much to mess up.
RABHYA MEHROTRA is a sophomore in Morse College. Her column runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .