Last December, I graduated from Yale. I had taken a semester off—what would have been my senior fall—during the first year of the COVID pandemic. My final week was predictably chaotic, as I madly juggled final papers and exams with saying goodbye and thank you to all my loved ones in New Haven.
The night before I left, my parents arrived to help me pack and drive me home. We took a break to visit the Yale bookstore. My little brother had grown out of his Yale sweatshirt, my mom needed Christmas gifts for my grandparents. It seemed like the time to splurge on some merch.
For the past four years, I’ve taken an absurd sort of pride in the fact that I do not own a single item of Yale gear that isn’t associated with a club or event. I love my TD joggers and my C2 soccer hat; but when I see people wearing that classic navy Yale sweatshirt, I feel a prickle of self-righteousness that I am not flaunting my elite Ivy education. I promise, the irony of this attitude is not lost on me.
Yet as my mom and I lingered in the Yale bookstore that night, I was surprised by a strange feeling welling up in me. I remember the soft Barnes & Noble light pouring like a warm drink onto the cold December pavement. I remember grazing my fingers along the big blue Y’s emblazoned on soft cable-knits and sleek dry-fits. And I remember wanting…all of it. I wanted all the Yale gear. My righteous humility and monetary prudence were briefly smothered under a rising desire for a closet full of Yale. At the same time, I wondered at this desire. Was it crass materialism? I thought not. It wasn’t just any stuff I wanted, it was Yale stuff, especially stuff that related to my experience of the place.
With some reflection, I realized that this desire—like many others—came from fear. I was afraid to let go of Yale. More specifically, I was afraid of no longer belonging to it and of it no longer belonging to me. As students, this is our home. We are insiders. I hated the thought of coming back years later as a crusty alum, acting like I’m still in the know while current students try to hide their scorn.
I’m admitting all of this not to defend my fear or my desire to buy stuff, but to put it in the context of a more fundamental truth of human nature. In my desire to buy all the Yale merch before graduating, I recognized a familiar pattern of love gone awry.
If you ever watch a performance of Shakespeare’s King Lear, you may be surprised to hear more about economics than you might’ve expected in a play about the chaotic destruction of a mythical British royal family. The titular king is constantly calculating, “reckoning,” measuring up what he owes and is owed. “I am a man more sinned against than sinning,” he insists against the storming heavens (3.2.52). He manipulates the biblical commandment to “honor your father” in a negotiation game with his two elder daughters, and he banishes the youngest because she refuses to play. If you wanted to reduce Lear’s tragedy to a “fatal flaw,” you might say it’s that he treats love as a commodity. Love does not take kindly to such treatment.
Perhaps to my shame, I understand Lear. He wants to possess the ones he loves with stockbroker certainty, and I think this is something most of us have felt. The more we love something—especially when we believe that thing is good—the more we want to be one with it, to enter it or swim in it somehow. I think about reading books when I was little, wanting so badly to be in the world of the story and best friends with the characters. I could barely bring myself to start a new book for fear of losing that world.
Sex is another obvious example. It might sound strange, but I do think sexual desire can partake of a more transcendent desire for unity with something beautiful. This framework might even be helpful for thinking about sexual misconduct: The desire to possess is a distortion of the desire for unity, a distortion driven by fear of not having control.
The main character in one of my favorite books, Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis, puts this feeling bluntly and heart-wrenchingly as she describes her love for her beautiful sister:
I wanted to be a wife so that I could have been her real mother. I wanted to be a boy so that she could be in love with me…I wanted her to be a slave so that I could set her free and make her rich (25).
If I had to commit to a grand unified theory of broken human relationships, that would be it: Love overshadowed by fear of loss becomes possessiveness. I see this pattern throughout literature, including most of Shakespeare’s father characters. Echoing Lear, Leonato in Much Ado About Nothing says that his daughter is
…mine, and mine I loved, and mine I praised,
And mine that I was proud on, mine so much
That I myself was to myself not mine,
Valuing of her (4.1.143).
There is a flicker of true love here, as Leonato is willing to give up his own self-love. But he can’t give up the thing he loves more than himself.
All these characters mistake their craving for possession as the essence of love, when it is really only a weak, primitive response to the goodness of the object of their desire. As I walked through the Yale bookstore on my last night as an undergrad, I made the same mistake.
I’m back on campus now for commencement, getting ready to walk with my friends in the class of 2022. Once again, I’m feeling an urge to buy all the Yale gear. This time, however, I’m aware that this urge is only a weak emanation from deeper emotion: the rich bittersweetness I feel as I spend time with friends and walk the streets I’ve come to love. I will soon be less a part of Yale, less united with the people that, to me, constitute its goodness. Still, I think I’d rather lean into the pain of love than try to numb it with merch.
RAQUEL SEQUEIRA is a graduating senior in Timothy Dwight College. Contact her at email@example.com.