Whatever that means to you.
This column is featured in the 2017 Commencement & Reunions Issue.
On a grim morning at Starbucks, I became suddenly and profoundly conscious that I may never again be surrounded by as many talented people as I am here at Dartmouth. Where else, I wondered as I looked around at my companions, will I be sitting with aspiring playwrights, political theorists and geoscientists all at the same time? Almost as soon as this thought crossed my mind, I clicked out of the paper I was working on and added a sandalwood candle emblazoned with an Edgar Allen Poe quote to my Amazon Prime cart. Bittersweet rumination: successfully dodged. All we ever see or seem is but a dream within a dream—at least, that’s what my new candle says.
Online shopping habits notwithstanding, in four years I’ve come to realize that, in our ceaseless quest for achievement, we deliberately avoid looking inward. It is far easier to click “add to cart,” walk a little faster or generally move forward on some scale of progress than it is to reflect.
“I hate it when my Apple Watch tells me to breathe deeply for one minute when I’m in the middle of something,” a friend once complained to me here. “I don’t have time for that!”
As we check items off to-do lists and draft cover letters on the path to accomplishment, it becomes easier and easier to put off any meaningful personal inquiry. Instead of self-reflection, we craft our self™—a curated medley of Instagram posts, demographic banalities, major and minor combinations, all reeled off with practiced nonchalance.
Two terms ago and two terms into my editorship at The D, I struck up a conversation with a fellow editor in the office for the first time. We worked different sections and passed each other frequently, and after talking for nearly an hour during a lull in production activity, we both wondered aloud why we hadn’t hit it off sooner. I had always found her intimidating, I confessed. She had thought I was too put-together to be approachable. I couldn’t stop laughing at what I saw as a gross misperception, but she didn’t know me—she was seeing my self™. This varnish buffed away my encyclopedic recall of uncool Pokémon trivia and my unease at parties along with my acne scars. It can make you just palatable enough, a filtering that lubricates social interactions as effortlessly as it settles upon you like a mask in a way you can never admit. How wild it is to realize that everybody around you might also be wearing one.
If our personalities are who we are when we are with other people, then this self™ is much more a reflection of our audience—of college—than of us. Now that this audience of talented peers is disbanding, we are left to wonder who we are without the people we have surrounded ourselves with who propped us up. Without an audience, for whom are we doing what we’re doing? The problem is that introspection —what have I done? who have I become? am I happy? —is excruciating, and these questions don’t lend themselves to clever solutions or technical mastery. When it comes to looking inward, you can’t test your data for statistical significance and call it meaningful.
Questioning the self™ means troubling illusions. It means poking at pixels and hitting nerves. We’re leaving now, and the progress checkpoints that drove us to and through here have in many ways stopped making sense. Understanding ourselves as bundles of complexities is a lifelong project, and though this might keep you awake at night, it might also keep you alive—and I don’t mean a ventilated sack of high-salaried flesh but really, truly alive, whatever that means to you.
We hug each other in our matching robes at commencement, but our names are read one by one. There is no shortage of challenges to face after graduation; maybe the first one should be our selves.
Priya Ramaiah ’17 is a former managing editor of The Dartmouth.