September 2, 2014

KIM | Our Dickensian Delusions

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By TERESA KIM

A time-lapse of the last five months at Cornell would reveal this: Crowds of black caps and gowns traversing to and from each ceremonial event, a three-month idyllic period that characterizes an Ithacan summer and mobs of concerned parents with moving boxes and their hyperactive adolescent children wishing they would leave them already. This is merely a bird’s eye view of the ebb and flow of our migratory student population. Yet taking this view also points to the fleeting nature of our school’s social constructs and the philosophies we carry concerning them. As a new generation of people leave, another generation replaces them.

This phenomena of social transition is best voiced by a transcription of an oration I came across last semester. I was studying at King’s College London and the oration I stumbled upon was a commencement address delivered by C.S. Lewis for KCL’s graduating class of 1944. The address is titled “The Inner Ring.” Here, Lewis seeks to not conform to the tropes of a middle-aged moralist lecturing a younger generation on the vice of contemporary political issues or philosophical ideals. Instead, he simply gives advice on the nature of reality:

In other words, the inner ring is the metaphoric exclusivity that we seek to be inside. People outside are constantly trying to get into this inner ring. They are everywhere. They are in our schools, our workplaces and our governments. And they draw the borders that define the hierarchies that loom over us, dictating our place, identity and value in society.

This is not to say that all inner rings are inherently evil. It is mostly a matter of the measure of expectation we place on attaining membership in these inner rings. Take our school for example. Admission into Cornell automatically makes one a member of the inner ring we call the Ivy League. The student comes to Cornell only to find an overwhelming number of more inner rings. Therefore, one’s identity on campus is limited to the inner rings that one is a part of. And so begins a long journey of trial-and-error of entering these inner rings. But this isn’t the only journey you can take.

The key, I think, to a worthwhile and profitable experience here is finding assurance in the inner ring that is yourself.

When travelling through Europe last semester, I began to finally notice the almost immeasurable discrepancy between who I was on paper and who I was really was on a global spectrum. Underneath the Pantheon in Rome or in front of the Rosetta stone, my intellectual steam engines came to a halt. I was helpless. I felt small. If there was anything I learned from travelling alone, it was how to be silent.

Throughout Europe, the stereotype of the lone, American traveller is prevalent. They are everywhere. And their prevalence only speaks to the desire of the many Americans who wish to escape the inner rings that constitute our social landscape. Because at the very core of the American institution is the capitalist glorification of self-made wealth and success. These ideals infiltrate our psyches from our conception, and we begin to adhere to them unconsciously. So when thrown into a context I was unfamiliar with, like mainland Europe, I, like many Americans before me, was refreshed to navigate my way through different European societies without having the demand that I be “interesting.” Because really, no one cared if I attended Cornell or had an amazing internship waiting for me.

I admit it is difficult at Cornell to abolish one’s self from the inner ring lifestyle. We are rewarded for our ability to weave complex, first-person narratives. Inner rings are plentiful and we desire to enter them. And an interesting story is required at entrance. It is how we were first offered admission and how we survive on campus. Our lifestyle here is constantly supplemented by questions like how our day was and what we plan on doing today or in the future. There is an underlying demand that we have an interesting, competent story. And without even knowing it, we conform to the stories that we like to tell to others.

This method of storytelling reaches far back then one would care to believe. I can personally trace this back to my juvenile obsession with Victorian fiction and later on, my high school English curriculum. Dickens, to be precise. Is it safe for me to say that neither Pip nor Oliver ever rid themselves of both their gnawing sense of insecurity? For them, their lives meant one of two extremes: that of extreme wealth or poverty and that of otherworldly, moral purity or corruption. Many, however, fall in between.

Studying in London, I was mostly unseen despite the usual head nod that acknowledged by American-ness. But what became important to me was how to be unseen and still feel accepted. So now that I’m back, I’m going to try some new things — to not have a lengthy answer for everything and to not justify my existence by the inner ring standard.

Teresa Kim is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at tk359@cornell.edu. Proverbially Speaking appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.