Once A Cynic, Now Reformed
There was a moment my freshman fall — standing on the snow-covered Green, wearing drenched sneakers and a crayon costume (yes, it snowed on Halloween) and surrounded by hundreds of my similarly elated classmates — when I declared in an uncharacteristic display of sappiness that I loved Dartmouth.
Now, I have always taken a kind of perverse comfort in being an expert at feeling, projecting and causing cynicism, as my parents would be happy to confirm. Since sentimentality terrifies me, there are few things in this world I will admit that I love — my family, one of my two dogs (just kidding, Beckett), Russian novels and cheese. But for a while, Dartmouth was one of them.
Eventually and perhaps inevitably, my rose-colored vision of the College gradually succumbed to my cynical poison as I learned that Dartmouth, alas, is not perfect. In coming to this realization, I descended into full-fledged disillusionment, ashamed at the moments of euphoric pride like that Halloween night, which in retrospect I deemed to be immature and silly. The utopic myth that is Dartmouth nationalism, I decided, quashed dissenting expressions of real pain and real concern. As a way to make sure I did not fall into this trap, I unconsciously constructed a rule whereby anytime people mentioned anything remotely positive about the College, I internally dismissed them as willfully vapid and naïve, placing them within my mental construct of “Mainstream Dartmouth” and myself far away. To be content here was to be uncaring, I thought.
There were exceptions, of course. Occasionally and unexpectedly, over dinner or a fleeting conversation in the library, I would encounter an individual who would briefly rip me out of my disillusionment, surprising me in his or her vibrancy and zeal in discussing difficult issues. According to the logic of my rule, he or she should be callous. These people perplexed me, so I categorized them as rare exceptions to my rule. But as I kept encountering exceptions, I realized that there might just be something wrong with the rule.
In my sweeping dismissal of those around me, I forgot that there is a difference between being cynical and being critical. As my father constantly reminds me, unbridled cynicism is not healthy and it is certainly not productive. Sometime during the self-imposed misery that was 14F, I sent a long-winded, self-indulgent email to him with the subject line “My future,” in which I bemoaned the prospects of a certain-penniless career and the uninspired lives of those around me. He responded, concisely and simply, with “Emma, now is the time to be idealistic.”
In that moment, I realized that I had traded my idealism for disillusionment, and I had conflated critical thinking and cynicism. Critical thinking is not a despondent, futile task — it is one that demands active engagement with others. Being critical and being idealistic are not mutually exclusive. Rather, they go hand in hand. Instead of approaching every person with an awareness of what sets us apart — our major, our career plans, our view of the Greek system — I have come to see that trusting that others will be thoughtful and engaged is just as important as retaining my own convictions.
It doesn’t take a genius to discover that I use my cynicism to avoid being vulnerable. I exposed my heart my freshman year, when I suspended my negativity and placed an outstanding degree of faith in the Dartmouth community. When I discovered that not every one of my peers always embodies the ideal of a daring, introspective truth-seeker dedicated to transforming the world, I felt, perhaps irrationally, betrayed and foolish, so I reverted back to my protective veneer of apathy. This was made easier by the fact that — whether it be a chemistry midterm, a job application or a formal date — we are constantly reminded that having high expectations invariably leads to disappointment. But my experience has taught me the opposite is true. When I lowered my expectations and braced myself for disappointment, I was not happy — I was apathetic.
There is a numbness inherent in the attitudes shared by both the jaded senior and the fervent freshman. Categorizing everyone and everything as either flawed or flawless makes it easier to distance yourself, but it also robs you of the chance to appreciate the complexity of every individual. When I was hesitant to criticize anything about Dartmouth and to admit any dissatisfaction, I was equally as disengaged as I would become in my later years here.
In learning to balance my criticisms with an openness toward others — understanding that the moments of love for Dartmouth do not have to be guilty ones — I have realized that my facade of worn and wearied bitterness is just that — a facade. That I am 21 and am still figuring things out, as we all are. That the world has ample opportunities to surprise and even delight me. That distancing myself from those around me does not make me cool, or wise, or nonchalant — it only makes me lonely and indifferent.
That being said, though my bitterness may have faded, my criticisms have not. There is an enormous amount about Dartmouth I firmly believe needs to change, and the reality is that while its students can be dynamic and insightful, they can also be violently ignorant and complacent. The rosy, nostalgic dear old Dartmouth I envisioned as a freshman may never return for me, and that’s a good thing, for it wasn’t based in anything real — any person or conversation or experience. But the elation I felt during my first Halloween here wasn’t insincere or trivial. It was one of many moments that I now know compose what I love about Dartmouth — the ones, both silly and serious, spontaneous and unpackaged, where I drop my fatalistic facade and let myself connect to those around me.
This is why I have come to believe it is beneficial to avoid turning people and experiences into abstractions, and when I say this, I mean it in both directions. Just as behind the “Wall Street Frat Bro” package lies an individual, so too does someone stand behind the “Angry Radical” one. You can make anyone fit into a box if you are determined enough. But in doing so, you miss out on the challenge of actually engaging with others and appreciating the compelling complexities of your peers.
So here is a piece of unsolicited advice from a faux cynic, as a friend once called me. If you are cynical, try to find something or someone here to love, keeping in mind that each one of us has our own perspective, fears and wishes. And if you aren’t cynical, understand that this does not mean you can’t — or shouldn’t — be critical. Because thinking critically is the key to tapping into your truest and richest emotions, the most powerful of which is empathy.