I left my first year expecting that the time of uncertainty would be pretty much over. Of course things would change, but I don’t think I fully realized what this change would look like. Or at least, I expected things to grow linearly — I knew that I wouldn’t hold on to every single relationship from my first year, but I thought that I would have felt like I was growing, not regressing. On the other side of sophomore year, I do feel like I’ve developed. But there were parts of this semester that were hard in ways I didn’t expect them to be. In a high-pressure environment, most of us have a hard time coping with failure. It is stressful to feel like you might fail a class, like you lost a friendship, or suddenly, want to be alone. Perhaps the biggest stress about these things was not that they happened, but that I didn’t know they would happen.
Moving off the first-year quad is definitely part of this experience. I am living with some of my best friends, yet far away from others. It’s not a crazy dramatic shift, but there is something different about not all living close together. Amherst is small, and I know it’s ridiculous to call any distance here truly far, but Marsh is pretty far from other dorms. Plus, being at a small school sometimes makes you expect that we will all be around each other constantly. Suddenly, one day when you didn’t see your friend becomes “ages.” I kind of love this about Amherst, but I think it also leads to an unhealthy anxiety about being alone — if you can always be with friends, why would you not be? I think we often mistake time, knowledge and secrets for intimacy. We think it is the number of secrets we share that binds us, though I would argue it has nothing to do with the secrets at all and much more to do with how we felt together when we shared that hidden part of ourselves. If we can remember the value of secret sharing over the secrets themselves, perhaps we will be more okay with spending time apart from each other, with not sharing everything with everyone all the time. The sudden, liberating realization that relationships can have these turns and are not a constant push of “now I know this and this about you” makes you remember that you actually can meet new people at Amherst. And that has been one of the best parts of this year — growing closer with friends but finding new ones in unexpected places.
As I’ve been thinking about my relationships with others, I’ve found myself thinking about my past. I think about the time before I came out to my family, how it feels like I was an entirely different person before. Sexuality is not every part of my being, and though I was still myself, I could not truly be comfortable. Keeping a secret — especially a secret that scares you — engenders a sort of mental paralysis that permeates into daily life. I do not know how to feel about the years immediately preceding my coming out — years when I knew and actively shut other people out of certain parts of my identity. What did it mean that my friends and parents didn’t know me? How to think about a person who no longer exists? Yet, I also find myself thinking about car rides from school with my parents. I remember walking them through my day in unnecessary detail. I don’t remember a single thing I told them, but I know we grew close from this repeated exposure.
With enough time, relationality becomes inevitable; I think most people have strong feelings about their family; whether positive or negative, it is difficult to not have any feelings at all. And when I think about these small memories I stop feeling bitter about those years. I learned about myself through living a certain kind of fiction. And the fictional me I presented was still a part of who I am. I did not tell my family or friends everything — I even told them complete lies — yet we love each other for the hard times, not in spite of them.
What I’m trying to say is that the value of relationality with something does not hinge on how well we know it. We will never know how to be ourselves perfectly or how to tell others exactly who we are. I was particularly bad at being myself at 14, but that did not make my relationship with myself worthless. So it matters far more how we approach other objects repeatedly and try and try again. Yet, our relationships are not defined by what we know but how we are around each other. “Knowing” implies an ending. After all, once you know, what else is left? So perhaps relationality, not just with yourself but with others, hinges on fiction. There is a never-ending quality to the best kind of loves, which bend in both difficult and beautiful ways.
So how to at least continue trying to be myself? Unexpectedly, and because of spring burnout, I think I’ve chosen to spend a lot more time alone this semester. I’ve found myself withdrawing from things and friends. Just wanting to take a night off from Val or walk home to Marsh alone. While at times I may have stretched this habit beyond healthy limits, this time has also been incredibly important for me. I’m not trying to come off as a cliché millennial sad boy, but I do genuinely think time alone is valuable, not selfish, and certainly nothing to be ashamed of. Retreating has given me time to think about what I really want to be doing; given me ideas for fiction writing; helped me listen better; helped me develop more confidence; helped me be okay with being alone. I’m not advocating isolation. There have been times in my life when I’ve stopped doing things I loved, and perhaps this is a sign that you took things too far. I also try to remember that time alone also means time alone from myself — being in a place where I stop myself from ruminating and telling myself all that is wrong and ugly.
Virginia Woolf once wrote, “When they were alone, they said nothing. They looked at the view; they looked at what they knew, to see if what they knew might perhaps be different today. Most days it was the same.” I’d like to try looking at myself, and saying nothing — to be truly alone, and find out what might perhaps be new today. When was the last time I asked myself “how are you?” and didn’t know the answer? Allowed myself to think about it? Given myself the benefit of the doubt? I am trying not to rush. I am trying to learn to be myself by living alongside others and being okay with not knowing myself. It’s the end of sophomore year, and I had to decide on small things like my major, but I will not know what I want to do, where I want to end up, and I will be okay with that. Regardless of how uncertain we are about the far off future, most of us are uncertain about something in everyday life. No matter how many times we tell ourselves that “it’s okay,” we still worry about the unknown — some worrying is inevitable and likely healthy. Perhaps we all need a gentle reminder to relax. I hope to live far away, in a place where I find and treat myself with kindness, awake inhabiting the body of a stranger.