First published in The Duke Chronicle on 5 Dec 2014
One of the most brilliant professors I’ve ever met once whispered something to me over lunch that I've never forgotten. “A person with no fear of disclosure,” he said, “has more power than anyone else in the world.” At the time, I could only nod slowly. We had been discussing the death of intellectual thought at colleges, and my own naivety and stupidity had never seemed so obvious. After all, this professor had two degrees from Harvard and a successful career in research. But he had also once told us he thought that professors were the most insecure and narrow-minded people he knew, and because he had been willing to admit this, I trusted him. I did not always understand him, but nevertheless I remembered his words. They had a ring of importance.
As the strangest semester of my life draws to a close, I am beginning to understand. When half the junior class leaves and the seniors move off campus, Duke transforms into a school of strangers again. I found myself hanging out more with the one person I usually avoid—myself. It is surprising how much you do not know about yourself until you are forced to confront it. I discovered, among other things, that techno music is awesome, eating less meat is feasible and that I didn’t want to go to law school after all. How enjoyable it was to get to know a version of myself I’d never encountered before—unapologetic, sarcastic and as weird as they come.
Yet, the thing about all that alone time is that you forget about keeping up appearances. You forget that you even have an appearance. But of course, we all do. When we speak to each other, we conceal much of our true selves behind a projected version without even realizing it. We smile when we do not feel like smiling. We think things but do not say them. We have secrets we shrink from sharing with others. There are phrases that are polite, and phrases that are blatantly inappropriate. We have gotten so good at concealing ourselves, we do not even realize we are doing it.
After spending a semester luxuriating in my freedom of expression, I noticed my interactions with people began to feel strangely restrictive. It was almost painful to moderate myself when all I wanted to do was stop filtering and say what was on my mind. Why was talking about class stress acceptable but mental stress awkward? Why did we need to fill in silences, instead of letting them stretch out? There seemed to be infinite social norms I had to comply with and quashed beneath them was my very own soul.
More than that, I developed a fascination with the idea of seeing moments of authenticity—people as they really are, not who they attempt to be. So many of my peers shine in their online personas, in their cheerful photos and pithy celebratory statuses, but what were they really thinking? Their summer internships, their hometown, their social affiliations—these facts I knew, but they were not the crux of their natures. I wanted to know moments when they had been afraid or morally suspect, moments they were proud of. I wanted to know what their insecurities and hopes what they yearned for the most in the world.
But I would almost certainly never know all these things. How could I even ask? What I wanted was full disclosure.
And I realized what my professor had been trying to tell me. A person who does not fear full disclosure is one who does not fear the truth. The truth that, while the world tries to hush it up, we are all human. We do ugly, petty things at times and are selfish and give in to temptation. We envy, we lust, we fail. Imperfection is our natural state. And yet so much goes into covering up these shortcomings, as if pretending we are perfect will make it a truth.
It reminds me of a David Foster Wallace quote that still gives me shivers. “The truth will set you free. But not until it is finished with you.” Practicing a lifestyle of utter authenticity is voluntarily opening ourselves to a new world of hurt. It is disturbing to confront the full scope of our human shortcomings, especially when we like to see ourselves as heroes of our own stories. But it’s necessary if we are to live lives that are not simply concealments of our true selves.
I will never be perfect. And because I am still uncomfortable with that fact, I still cannot offer full disclosure. Sometimes I imagine what it would be like, though. I imagine having conversations about my deepest insecurities with people as easily as I do about my upcoming class schedule. I imagine not having to play the game where the person who cares less is the more powerful one, even if I care intensely. I imagine no shame about my weaknesses or my fears. I imagine the perfect liberty of full disclosure, because there is nothing left to hide.