Like any other quarter-life-crisis-undergoing college student, I am a set of contradictions. I like avocado toast with the useless radish garnishes spread on the plate, but I also like crumbly Cheez-Its grabbed out of the box at 4 a.m. I sing “old people” music in the shower, but I still bop my head if Halsey comes on the radio. I showed up in Lululemon leggings to my morning class, but I fell asleep in a baggy band t-shirt.
So by that equation, I’m labeled as “basic,” right? Let me say that again with a valley girl accent: if insulated water bottles are in the equation, then I’m definitely basic. But wait, if I like sunflowers and leather-bound journals, then I’m hipster. But if I wear Ugg boots I’m shallow, if I love mismatching socks I’m fake-quirky, if I raise my hand in seminars I’m a try-hard.
But none of those things capture who I am. None of those things fit anyone, because none of us are any “one” particular thing. But lately I’ve noticed that we don’t know how to identify each other in any other way — we box each other between mediocre adjectives and uninventive nicknames pulled from the back of a flea-market dictionary, just so it’s easier to to give someone a place in our lives. We give them a cliché just to understand them, and to Hell with the rest of their personality.
My creative writing professor taught a lesson about building a fiction character today. He said, for a character to be realistic, for them to be true-to-life, they must have features that contradict themselves. They must be selfish yet kind-hearted. Fearful yet spontaneous. They must have a set of raw, honest characteristics about them that simply don’t match up. Otherwise, they’re not real.
Yet here were are, boxing real humans in between the slow-drip coffee and the kombucha lover category. We’re even less real than the characters of my all-nighter essays. We’ve turned into a writer’s nightmare, siphoning off our very “real” characteristics into a set of things we can understand, a set of descriptions we can hold in the palm of hands. We’ve crushed our varying hopes and dreams and desires into two-dimensional greeting-card descriptions, pastel envelopes and all.
And it’s not just the bad eggs that do this. I found myself being sucked into this impulse too — it became the easy route to characterize someone by their initial behaviors. The sports player in my seminar must like football, the computer science major must be obsessed with tech, the painter in Sibley Hall must like sparkling water. I even started trying to label myself — an English major must love kale and falling-apart flip flops and wire-rimmed glasses.
But I’m no Sherlock Holmes, and I realized I can’t capture people in a two-second snapshot. I found out the sports player likes cute patterned journals, the computer science major likes old films shot on wobbly cameras and the painter likes the tiny jugs of apple cider sold at Olin. And my flip flops are still intact, I have 20/20 vision, and I don’t even like kale.
We’re more complex than these labels. We’re more real than these titles. Let’s stop seeing the world through such an incredibly narrow lens and instead pick up the kaleidoscope of colors. It’s okay to find an easy way to identify people, because it’s human instinct to try to simplify what we can’t understand. But when we get pigeonholed into categorizing people, we miss all the details that make them human. While we’re staring at their Canada Goose jacket, we miss the tiny quirks they have, like the zebra-striped shoelace or the skateboard tattoo. We miss out on all the things that make them complex and interesting and memorable, until the entire world ends up just being flat.
No one is “fake-hipster” just because they like The Beatles, and no one is “fake-scholarly” just because they read Jane Austen. We weren’t made to be squeezed into boxes (yes, even the ones used to sled down Libe Slope), packed with bubble wrap, and shipped with a sticker. We’re meant to be sifted through, observed with an open eye and ultimately to be understood.
So, nice to meet you, I’m a workaholic millenial, a sundress loving old lady, a “fake-but-not-too-fake” hipster. I like modern furniture but I also like quilts and floppy hats and slightly-cracked coffee mugs. I go to Target but you can’t pull me away from a thrift store, especially the vintage one on the Commons. This is me; who are you?