Forgetting Your Past

by Erin Landau | 5/28/15 7:36pm

It is easy to lie about who you are, both to yourself and others. Most freshmen enter college with very few people who truly know them — and, of course, many barely know themselves. This makes it easy to take on a new identity — many consider the ability to reinvent yourself to be one of the most positive aspects of entering this new stage in life. Unfortunately, this reinvention often comes at the cost of important aspects of one’s personality and can change the core of a person.

I am all for leaving certain things behind — letting go of the past and moving forward is a brave and difficult process that should not be overlooked. But Dartmouth’s group-oriented culture can encourage students to be joiners rather than independent thinkers, and reinventing oneself to belong can inhibit personal development. Before embracing a community’s ideals without criticism, figure out what you value most and try not to lose yourself in reinvention.

There exists a certain trope at the College: A freshmen who was considered a nerd in high school might arrive on campus only to realize that she is now considerably more well-known, even better liked — perhaps she could even be considered cool. It’s not because being book-smart is cool in college or even at Dartmouth — one of the few places you might expect this sort of role reversal. It is just that in a new place, you are capable of hiding a side of yourself because everyone doesn’t know the un-cool things you did in high school to get here — studying more than everyone else, playing the bassoon, never drinking, et cetera. When I arrived, I thought of entering college as shedding a layer of skin — I would rise from the remains of my former self, glistening with the desire to embrace academics, frolic outdoors and join as many different organizations as possible to secure my place at the College on the Hill.

Often this prototypical student will join some sort of group to fit in — becoming “affiliated” with one of the College’s many organizations. I myself have never been one to affiliate with anything. The groups I belong to on campus — including The Dartmouth — do not really form larger communities that also function as social networks. But many associate themselves with a larger community early on, and Dartmouth’s social culture encourages this sort of affiliation. By affiliation, I mean groups, both exclusive and inclusive, that include the Greek system as well as other groups such as the Dartmouth Outing Club, Ledyard, DREAM, ski patrol, Dimensions of Dartmouth and an endless list of others. Social groups are not bad in and of themselves, and they often have commendable missions — the Greek system preaches sister — and brotherhood and ski patrol helps ensure public safety. Like any group, though, they foster the creation of a collective identity that can be easily taken on by impressionable students. I don’t mean to argue against simply identifying as a member, but I find it troubling when people change fundamental parts of themselves to fit into the norm in these specific groups. Certain aspects of one’s personality might mesh well with the organizations’ values, making it easy to forget the parts that don’t really fit the template. Often personal reinvention coincides with the desire to join new groups, facilitating the prioritization of group values over individual ones. The result can produce confused young adults trapped in a social role that does not reflect their values.

I found it very easy to lie to others about who I was freshman year, mostly because I didn’t know myself well enough to understand that I was deceiving anyone. I made decisions that I considered rational at the time because I never stopped to think about how my actions would impact the rest of my time here. There were many times when I lied just for the sake of lying — I said I’d seen a movie that I haven’t actually heard of or I had been to a famous place when I was actually clueless. These lies are not always harmful, but they can add up — there have been points in a conversation during which I’ve realized that I accidentally constructed an alternative version of myself that doesn’t actually exist. I’ve tried to minimize those moments throughout college — when a lie spirals out of your control and all of a sudden even you believe that you love mountain biking when you have never ridden a bike in your life. Some of these lies originated in my internal desire to fit into a group, and some of them didn’t — some have been in an effort to hide parts of my past, and some have been in an attempt to reinvent myself completely.

We will always wish to hide the more unsavory parts of ourselves. I am not suggesting that reinvention is always problematic. It is easy to judge the nerd-turned-popular kid because reinvention is seen as a tool employed to gain social capital. But there are legitimate reasons to leave certain memories or behaviors behind when you get to college. Still, embracing the values of a group before understanding your own can make us forget the things we value most.

What happens when we leave these built-in communities behind? Do we find new identities to embrace, or are we left to face our true selves and confront all the aspects we wanted to change?

Try not to lie to yourself and others. Know thyself, the classical Greek aphorism, has never been more important than in college. You’re freed from parental supervision and yet are still developing mentally and physically. The importance of taking time to process what goes on around you, especially in the groups you join, cannot be overstated.

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