A friend, a relative, an Olympian and an old teammate: Four people who, though they did not do so knowingly, contributed in one way, shape or form over the past week to challenge my view of the world. It may sound hyperbolic, or tinged with shades of a philosophical game of Clue, so let’s start somewhere light: Green Key.
So much happens over Green Key. From the finances of executing events to the increased number of people on campus, it’s a weekend of excess and surplus. It’s a weekend of seeing old friends and making new ones, where acceptable social parlay completely changes. People act and interact differently on a major weekend like Green Key for the simple fact that when enough of the campus population is going out, and when the sound of the GDX concert is shaking the walls of the library, collective inhibition drops and a general level of absurdity is acceptable.
Students look forward to Green Key as a break from the grind of classes and as a chance to refresh. They imagine the fun they’ll end up having while studying for that last midterm before the weekend. There’s actually a German word for this: “vorfreude,” which means the intense and joyful anticipation of imagining future pleasures. Not only do students project a sense of potential and happiness onto Green Key, they tend to remember it with rose-tinted glasses. After all, who wants to be the person who says their Green Key wasn’t fun when all of their friends ‘”had the best time ever”?
I bring up Green Key as a case study for the larger Dartmouth issue of insisting “I’m fine” regardless of whether or not one truly is. To this point: A friend of mine — let’s call this person Charlie — had an unquestionably bad Green Key. Still trying to process the weekend, Charlie confided in me that life just sucked. “Are you okay?” I asked dumbly. “No, I’m not,” Charlie said, with refreshing honesty. “And I don’t think I have to be.”
I paused, unsure how to respond. Charlie’s directness struck me. In general, it’s something lacking at Dartmouth. As a community of busy, self-motivated individuals who rely heavily on digital communication and a shared vernacular of emotionally-ambivalent terms like “sure, roll thru @now,” it’s rare to hear someone stop and share exactly how they feel. Thankfully, Charlie did.
That being said, her words did not instantaneously trigger a life-changing epiphany for me. I recognized that Charlie’s outlook and transparency had struck me, and then I went about my day. It wasn’t until the next morning when received a text from a family member that I reconsidered what Charlie said. The family member — let’s call this person Cassidy — texted me about her current living situation, among other things. It was a fairly long text that ended with the poignantly direct confession, “I think that I’m lonely.”
“Yes,” I texted back, “welcome to the club.” But I didn’t leave it there. I elaborated, overly analytically, on the origins of that loneliness, on people’s make-up as social creatures and their desire for companionship as a pre-requisite for the survival and perpetuation of the human species. I told her that people get comfortable, lose a sensation of physical discomfort and begin to feel something small and strange and worse arise inside them: loneliness. Then, naturally, I took the discussion outside to the existential playground, talking about how we’re dust and shall return to dust.
Without acknowledging my motley thesis on human existence, Cassidy asked me, “Where are you?”
“Dirt Cowboy. Drinking coffee.”
“That sounds nice. Can you FaceTime for a minute?”
“Sure,” I texted back. It wasn’t the best place to FaceTime, but after a few minutes, I realized that what Cassidy wanted was not for me to ruminate on the genealogy of loneliness, but rather to listen.
By the end of our conversation, something else had become apparent to me: Not only did Cassidy have little interest in investigating the way she felt with a razor-toothed academic comb, she also felt no need to deny it or run from it. She had accepted her situation and knew that it would come to pass, but for now, it was her reality and she may as well live with it. No, she may as well live in it — really experience it and feel its ins-and-outs, as unpleasant and unsettling as they may be. Because — and perhaps she said this just to get back at me for my returning to dust comment from earlier — “What else do we have in this life?”
After our conversation, I did the only reasonable thing I could do after experiencing such a genuine human interaction: I opened Instagram. Usually, that would have been a meaningless time-sink, but on this day, things were not destined to be usual. I came across a lengthy post by Olympian and Dartmouth Alumnus, Abbey D’Agostino ’14, written in response to her decision to end her track season early due to a nagging injury. In the post, D’Agostino acknowledged that after she “stopped bucking and started surrendering to the clear signs of a breakdown,” she felt “the sweet peace of knowing, deep down, [she needs] another plan and there is one.” She encouraged everyone else who has been stuck in a “negative cycle” to “Take heart… Take comfort in your smallness.”
Taking comfort in smallness reminded me of something that my cross country captain told the team during my freshman year: kill your heroes. At the time, I assumed he meant figuratively “killing” the professional runners, like D’Agostino, whom we looked up to and wished to emulate. I thought he was encouraging us to wipe them from the pedestals we had constructed in our minds so that there might be room for us up there someday. Maybe that’s what he meant. But, sitting there in Dirt Cowboy, I began to reconsider what it meant to kill your heroes — and not just your general idols, but one hero in particular: that idealized, impossible version of yourself that exists only in your mind. It’s who you wish you were. I began to wonder what it would mean to give up on “vorfreude” and “I’m fine” and rosy recollections, and instead to say “I am what I am and that’s all. I am no more or less than what I am right now — and that’s fine.”
If you learn to love and appreciate yourself as you currently are, you can stop the desperate search for external love and appreciation. That desperate search is the root of a whole host of unhealthy behaviors — from substance addiction to the excessive accumulation of money and objects to using and abusing people. If self-love is reserved only for a version of yourself that is yet to exist, you will spend forever chasing an unattainable idea. During that pursuit, you cling to anything that gives you the feeling you refuse to give yourself. The tragic yet redemptive fact is that loving yourself as you currently are is a choice you can make right now. Should you choose to do so — and I hope that you do — “I’m not smart enough for Dartmouth” becomes just one bad grade on a midterm, and “I didn’t get into that sorority because I’m not good enough,” becomes “it’s probably for the best.” And loneliness, as debilitating as it can sometimes be, becomes nothing more than being alone.