Through the Looking Glass: Patience

by Mark Baum | 9/25/14 6:23pm

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by Tracy Wang / The Dartmouth

If you receive advice with a closed mind you’re likely to reject it. But this is a “Dear Freshmen” article, so try to keep an open mind and I won’t have wasted your time.

Good job graduating from high school. I would say “congrats on getting in,” but you hear that enough already. How many times did orientation speakers describe you and your classmates as the smartest, most talented and most capable members of your graduating high school classes? Maybe you are, but there’s a word for people with grandiose views of themselves. So it’s time to start thinking about how to be happy at Dartmouth, instead of how great it is just to be here.

You’ve arrived prepared to immerse yourselves in new group of people. Despite the preparation — mental and cosmetic — it isn’t possible to be comfortable here instantly. If you let trips convince you that you really were being “welcomed home,” that you instantly fit in after you spent your first night in your dorm room, you’re delusional. You’re expecting too much. That doesn’t mean that you’re an outsider. It’s just going to take time. It doesn’t matter if your extended family and all five of your older siblings went to Dartmouth — you’re your own person. It doesn’t matter if you have a boyfriend or girlfriend from home and won’t have to fret about your romantic future here. Maintaining the long distance relationship might actually be harder than the alternative. It doesn’t matter if you’re the most sociable person this campus has ever seen, and you’re waiting for everyone to acknowledge you as such and grab on to your shoelaces before you get too far up the social ladder. Everyone has to go through the less-than-comfortable process of making new friends and adjusting to a new place.

I just want to share some advice about how not to deal with the discomfort, despite how much of it you might be experiencing.

Don’t become a caricature of yourself to smooth out the learning curve. Please resist that temptation. Be careful about how you react to discomfort and don’t waste your time pretending to be someone you aren’t, or pretending to be some fraction of yourself. Yes, yes, we know — “be yourself.” But don’t be afraid to think about how total the immersion is for you and most of your classmates. Unless you have your own room, almost every minute of every day here has been spent surrounded by new people — people when you sleep, people in the gym, people when you eat, maybe people in the bathroom, et cetera. The upside of this situation is that it forces you to make friends, which you will. But unless you’re one of those few assholes from New York who already knows half the school on the first day, or at least acts like they do, you really are getting a fresh start here.

You might look around and see upperclassmen mostly satisfied with their social circle, calmly navigating daily life. Remember they’ve had at least a year, and maybe three, to achieve that calm, and some of it was spent away from school gaining perspective. You might envy your classmates who play sports because they had a group of friends assembled for them before they even got here. Don’t worry about that either, because a lot of them will realize sports aren’t worth it, quit and have to revive the life they initially built around their team. You might feel annoyed with how often you answer the question, “Who should I eat with and where?” — a constant reminder of whose company you keep, and for that matter, don’t keep. Of course the “who” part of that question is more open-ended than the “where” in Hanover. You might start thinking a lot about your lack of connections here because even though you consciously expected not to know anyone right away, it still seems like you’re behind.

If it does seem like that, like everyone here already has many friends, that’s because most people actually do. But friends are a product of time and you haven’t spent very much here yet. While you finished high school, the older classes were here carving out and reshaping their little niches, slowly but surely (think about how different you felt at the end of high school vs. the beginning). But don’t make the mistake of believing that the carving process is at all intentional, because eventually you’ll ask yourself where you intend to be socially in three years, as if planning a major. It will take time to find the places you like to hang out and the people you like to hang out with, so don’t be in a hurry. There aren’t any shortcuts. If you let yourself feel pressured to find your people and places quickly, you risk engaging in a popularity contest — trying just to be liked by people — instead of respected, cared about, understood, et cetera. Simply being liked is different than finding a comfortable place here.

Being too concerned with social life encourages people to put too much effort into being liked, so that they also become uninteresting, really bland in the way that people are when they’re faking it. They suppress the dimensions of themselves across which unique connections are made. No doubt, you will see this happening to some of your classmates. They realize that playing up the most identifiable aspect of their personality will make it easy to find people to spend time with. They revert to the version of themselves that comes easiest. Maybe they feel noticed, but the sorry truth is that they accomplish just the opposite. They manage to fit in in a boring way, like a person who only has one mood, totally predictable. What’s worse, they may not get over that initial discomfort before graduating, because after a while it gets hard to stop pretending and they never really find their place. This isn’t a sacrifice worth making.

Maybe this sounds dramatic to freshman and accusatory to upperclassmen, but I think some people really do throw away parts of themselves to fit in, which is just so unnecessary at Dartmouth. Social stuff is relatively simple and easy to navigate. Because the town doesn’t provide very much entertainment, Dartmouth has large social structures in place to connect people, namely the Dartmouth Outing Club and Greek system. You don’t have to choose from a million places to go and as many ways to spend your time. You also don’t get to, but at the very least, everyone on campus is within a few square miles of each other almost all the time. People (i.e., New Yorkers) complain about “the bubble,” but those same people would praise Dartmouth’s “uniqueness” because of the very same feeling, the physical closeness and location/isolation — Camp Dartmouth. Not everybody wants to be a part of the structures, to be put in a box, but even the rebels admit that the structures work well. They’re practical, if flawed. It’s silly to get caught up forcing the development of your social self, because if you’re really worried you can start by taking advantage of some of the structures and saying yes to things. Sign up for some trips, get to know your floor, join a group or two (a cappella if you have to, ski patrol only if you really have to). Wait to join a house, and rightly prioritize other things, like finding meaningful work to do while you’re here — whatever meaningful means to you. Just be patient and don’t confuse the structures for more than they are. You use the structures, not the other way around.

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