First published in The Duke Chronicle on 14 May 2014
I can’t count the number of times I’ve been disappointed while at college. There’s nothing that lets you down faster than expectation. Whether it’s finding the wrong person attractive, the wrong answer for an exam or just the wrong end of social interactions in general, practically every expectation that I’ve ever held about myself has been questioned. Some disappointments sting more than others: one time I met someone, as the story goes, and he was great: adventurous, funny and thoughtful. He was also graduating at the end of the year. I never saw him again after that semester. It’s not an original story, as separation from the people you care about in life is both inevitable and natural. Still, I’ll never quite forget how I felt one summer afternoon, sitting in the gardens with a choking in my throat, hurt and angry in the way you only can be when you are suddenly aware of your own silly naivety.
Back then, I dealt with it in the most healthy way possible of course: I ate alarming amounts of chocolate, pretended it had never happened and resolved to myself that I would never be that vulnerable to someone again. And then, as moments like these developed in other areas of my life, it was too easy to be cynical of every friendship, relationship and life aspiration. What’s the point of trying? Who wants to be the one that cares more?
As the trees start shedding again and another year draws to a close, I find myself changed. I am a little harder, a little more independent and a little more unwilling to trust people. I’m looking at myself in the mirror of other people’s eyes, and I don’t like how disillusionment looks. I find myself changed. When you’ve explored a world a little and stretched your legs, you realize that everything is so much more complicated than your teenaged-self assumed, and it was already complicated. I suppose this is what it feels like to grow up. We’re in a pressure cooker here, and if you’re not being productive on Sundays, you won’t make it.
But I’m looking at myself in the mirror these days, and I don’t like how disillusionment looks. Maybe it takes a kind of strength to distance myself from too much attachment. Maybe disillusionment is a reality check that needs to happen. Regardless, I see how it paralyzes me and stops me from taking the chances I want to take. It stops me from acting the way I normally would. It’s going to be a barrier to success.
There are some of you who are coming to the end of spring feeling uplifted and strengthened and accomplished. Congratulations. I am not one of you. I am, instead, in the contingent that is tired and wonders sometimes if every good in the world will ever counter the flaws of humanity. I think people are terrible. I think I’m terrible. But there remains, as always, a choice whether or not to let that determine my life.
I don’t want it to stop me from caring about the world. That whole thing about people who care less having more power is true. They don’t get hurt. But the people who care more are stronger. No one is as naïve as they were four years ago, but still there are people who continue to give to homeless people and chase their dreams and try to make change in their slices of the world.
And I am going to get on a soapbox just for a moment. We must fight against disillusionment. We must not let it overtake us so young. It is only then that we can see a community where there are no rules, only possibility. There’s a difference between chasing an ideal because you don’t know better and chasing it because you understand its infallibility completely while still believing in it. Whatever it is that you believe in, chase it fully. Why the hell not? Tell him or her how you really feel. Look into internships for that job you think about sometimes in the middle of the night. Catch people’s eyes instead of avoiding them. Put yourself on the line with no safety net for once. Whatever the authentic self is, we can’t let it be overwhelmed. We can choose the opposite of cynicism. We can choose to still hope.
I don’t know if it will always be worth it, but I do believe that there’s a special serenity that I enjoy when I let my authentic self flow out and refuse to be beaten into submission. A lot of days it’s hard. The world will try to disillusion me, my heart will get shattered and I’ll struggle to stay soft and open. The glass half-full is draining itself. Other days someone will smile kindly at me on the way to class or an old friend will ask me how I’m going and I’ll think to myself that there are better things on the horizon—for me and for you, too.