A Voice Crying ‘I Don’t Know’ in the Wilderness

The experience of uncertainty might not always be fun, but it offers the freedom to dream.

by Meghan Powers | 10/8/21 3:00am

returning-to-campus
by Lila Hovey / The Dartmouth Staff

This article is featured in the 2021 Homecoming special issue.

Like a lot of people at Dartmouth, I was a deeply “Type A”-sort of person in high school. My hand-raising was incessant and full of Hermione Granger-like enthusiasm. I felt so sure about so many things, like who I was, what I thought and what I wanted — and I retained much of that personality through my first few terms at Dartmouth. While something inevitably softened when I had to be accountable for “adult” things like feeding and taking care of myself, I was ultimately the fast-walking freshman with five different colors of pens lined up next to my notebooks in class. Of course, Meghan in March of 2020 wouldn’t have guessed that her personality would essentially be put through a full-service car wash — nor would she have predicted the character arc that would find her a junior with a surer though somewhat-slower step, a regular order at Tuk Tuk and only three different pens per class. 

Growing up and calming down, in my case, has meant making room for uncertainty. Uncertainty, as I’ve discovered, is a sometimes foe and a frequent friend. Kurt Vonnegut gave a lecture in 2004 where he discussed “the shape of stories,” in which he demonstrated how every story from “Cinderella” to “Hamlet” will find its characters at the highest and lowest points of human emotion. The meandering shape of stories, says Vonnegut, tells us that “We don’t know what the good news is and what the bad news is.” We’re too close to our own plotlines to see ourselves in third person and recognize that, right after our stepsisters tear up our handmade gown, a fairy godmother might show up and create the first horse-drawn carriage in world history to double as a jack-o’-lantern.” 

My high school self would be mortified by my complete lack of a 5-year plan and all of the convictions I’ve re-opened to examination. But she also didn’t know how to fry an egg or write a cover letter, so I take the newfound uncertainty to be a sign of maturity — not regression. I unsurprisingly entered Dartmouth without any clue of what my major might be, and that particular uncertainty had a fascinating process of erosion. Choosing each term to take classes in some departments and not others narrowed the possibilities for my future and left me with small things to mourn: little lives I imagined for myself that I now know I’ll never live. Even as a freshman, I never thought I’d go the pre-med route, but wasn’t it nice to have the option of being Dr. Powers someday? 

You learn a lot about yourself when you don’t take anything for granted. Anyone here might have been “most likely to” where they’re from, but it was a whole different ball game for me once I figured out that my blue ribbons didn’t necessarily denote something deep and meaningful about me as a person. Still, certain types of uncertainty are more welcome than others. Dartmouth is a place where its students are invited to play with uncertainty and to say “I don’t know” more frequently than they ever dared in high school. This is a particularly rewarding experience when you’re not worried about your housing, your meal plan or which study spaces you can go to 24/7. The best kind of personal uncertainty is fostered by a secure environment — and the whiplash of the past year, or even the past few months, has made that particularly difficult to establish.

Arielle Feuerstein ’24, a fellow Mirror writer, recently reflected on the social uncertainty that ’24s face at Dartmouth. Feuerstein and her peers confessed to feeling “in limbo” and expressed fears of being “permanently out-of-place” as a result of all of the things that happened — and the traditions that didn’t happen — for ’24s during their freshman year. The same can be said for the haziness of the College’s reinstated mask mandate. It’s not anyone’s fault that the uncertainty of the outside world has such confusing implications, and those in the Dartmouth bubble are unquestionably less exposed to that chaos than others, but that’s missing the point. No one likes to feel like people are playing fast and loose with their future — especially for a Dartmouth tuition.

External uncertainties, like with your schoolwork and social life, are often more challenging than gratifying, but creative uncertainty can lead to weird and wonderful waters — especially when you can rely on some lighthouse to consistently call you back to port. David Lynch, a film director whose work would place him squarely in the pantheon of those who truly love mystery and confusion, had the same meal at the same diner at the same time every day for seven years back in the 80s, because he reckoned that certainty in the external parts of life could “lay the groundwork for excellence” in the uncertain realms of creativity. Basically, you get to treat everything else as a question mark when you have a good idea of who you are and how much DBA you have left — and that’s what’s special about Dartmouth at its best. Leaving room for uncertainty in the classroom, in your D-Plan and in your life means being open to new viewpoints and unintentional experiences. The surest way to miss out on learning something new is to approach life like you already have the right ideas about everything, when in truth, to paraphrase Katherine Hepburn in “A Philadelphia Story,” “The time to make up your mind about most things is never.”

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