We always think that we should be able to tell a linear story about ourselves. Not a story anyone would ever want to read; nothing heroic, or profound, or notable, or worth carrying around in your bag to read on the bus. Not a story to tell for other people. But as far as I can see, telling a story gives life direction and intentionality, at least in retrospect. Things happen with an internal logic that makes them ultimately worth it. Even if it’s absolutely generic, and embarrassingly uncreative, the bits of our brains that do introspection are usually preoccupied with finding some narrative buried in the shit that happens.
Searching for a story means assuming that none of the important stuff is arbitrary. Most evidence really seems to suggest that often, well, stuff just happens. We meet people, find our way into communities and discover passions due at least in part to purely random chance. A narrative doesn’t have much room for things like this. The club I joined, the person I dated and the field I chose to study were all plot points — they were the logical conclusion of everything that had happened before, and the necessary prelude to what would come next. Stories don’t allow much room for things just happening.
A narrative also demands a unique sort of causality. Truthfully, it’s impossible to know whether I would have ended up the same person I am now had I gone to a different school. And if I’m being honest, I probably would have. Of course, some things would be different, but there’s no reason to believe that it would be anything fundamental. Yet instead of being honest about this, my impulse is always to imagine that Cornell was uniquely formative. Had I landed anywhere else I would be radically different.
Truthfully, finding meaning in randomness is hugely important. Very few things occur with intrinsic importance, and it’s a truly human task to endow our lives with value. We should think, and think often, about why we make choices and where we derive meaning in the scattered bits of Personhood. However, the way in which we seek to tell these stories often insists that everything should be a linear march towards personal progress. It’s this particular approach to retrospective that does more harm than good.
There are three reasons to be concerned about the urge to tell this kind of linear story. The first is that a narrative hollows memories out. The honest emotion of an experience is lost to the meaning it’s given in retrospect. Rather than remembering the pain of loss or the disappointment of failure, I only end up remembering it as An Obstacle I Overcame. As a result, whatever honest, imperfect learning that may have come from the messy process of living gets painted over by the lesson I decide I should have learned. This anesthetic approach to memory doesn’t allow for any full kind of growth, even if it dulls the things that hurt.
The greater pain is discovering that you don’t really embody the story as you told it. The truth is, years-old hurt can still knock me on my ass. Despite my best efforts to write a neater path to adulthood, I still succumb to some of the same anxious frailties that I’ve felt for years. And I don’t know anyone who doesn’t. Yet the expectation that we move linearly away from the past makes this human experience feel like a failure. It’s the self-imposed shame of not yet being a finished product.
Lastly, though, the need to tell a story has made me edit out the wrong things. I am ashamed to admit how much energy I’ve put into imagining that I go to school far from home. Having grown up minutes from campus, I arrived at Cornell absolutely terrified that I hadn’t left anything behind. Wherever I went, familiarity hung in the air. I knew every building and every sound; I was unsurprised by the weather and the bus schedule. I was local, and I was very much still home.
But I had told myself a certain story about what it means to be grown. To prove that I was the kind of independent that I ought to be, I needed to be fully separate from anything old. So, in jagged and callous ways, I tried to build Different wherever I could. I distanced myself from old friends and visited family less frequently than I could have. I also bought zealously into the idea that Cornell is a bubble. I occupied myself with the business of being a student shedding any identity that might tie me back to the community I came from.
This artificial drive to redefine carried an empty feeling. I had ditched a lot of the ground on which I stood, leaving an unsteady sense of always searching. More than anything, it was just a bit lonely. Of course, I also temporarily turned my back on a town and a community to which I owe a tremendous amount. All of this because I was trying to tell a certain story.
In a lot of ways, college is built on the myth of the personal story. It begins with their sales pitch — come for self-discovery and a journey that will arrive at your best self. Upperclassmen tell tales of personal growth, how each experience they had was a step along some winding path. Universities bake these stories into their cultural ethos from the moment students arrive for orientation. And so we all tell stories about ourselves. And I still do.
When I applied to college, I turned every hopeless moment into a vector. Writing a personal statement, I poured weeks of energy into a half-baked story of personal growth. I emptied out my adolescence, turned it upside down and dumped every bit of family upheaval and personal angst out onto the table in front of me. Then I stitched these moments into a semi-honest narrative, giving each meaning and direction that pointed towards a finished 17-year-old product. It was common brand of bullshit, one of those things we all do, but it’s also entrenched in the way I’ve thought about the world. It’s this strong impulse to narrate our lives. Particularly for those who are about to graduate, it’s something we should be deeply skeptical about.
It’s hard to know what the alternative is. Surely there’s something innate about weaving stories from random events. But I think there’s value in learning to be comfortable with parts of life that just sort of happen; there’s pride to be found in enduring, even if we never grow; and there’s some strength in the humility to admit when we don’t know why are the way we are. Or, of course, maybe I’m totally wrong.
Rubin Danberg Biggs is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Common Table appeared alternate Fridays this semester.