Bettering, Adulthood, and Being Almost 22; or, Four Years is a Long Time

It is January and there is snow on the ground and the spring term does not start for another two weeks, which means that I have a lie-in every morning and the days all bleed hazily into each other. This Sunday morning I dragged myself grumpily out of bed at half ten, and stumbled through coffee and the internet; by noon I was eating a bagel in hall and frantically re-reading Symonds’ 1891 essay A Problem in Modern Ethics. Then I went to the library and spent the next five hours arguing in eight pages that Modern Ethics is a humanist critique of late-nineteenth-century Continental sexual science and cursing the monster that is my thesis, until the clock mercifully struck 6.15 and I could go to my co-op and have dinner and an hour and a half’s social time. Back to the library, then to chapel for the weekly hour where I try to exhort myself to be a better person, then home to watch TV and—the event that prompted this post—draft my first entry on the Princeton admissions office’s blog for this year’s admitted students.

Writing my post tonight, I was reminded of a time a little less than four years ago, when the world was only as large as a (admittedly sprawling) suburb in the wilds of southern California, and I sat at my desk in my second-floor bedroom that looked out over the street where the children of the parents with the “Yes on Prop 8” signs in their yards played. That was the time when I was alternately astonished that I’d gotten into Princeton and certain they’d only wanted me because my mother had graduated thirty years before. But that was also the time when I read the amazing Andy Chen‘s posts on the admitted students’ website, and I was struck so much by his understated prose style and controlled yet profoundly moving vulnerability as a writer that I wrote to him, and he wrote me back, and I began to think that, legacy anxieties aside, I would have to be stupid not to accept the gift of the next four years that I’d been given. I sent in my acceptance, and I turned the University of Chicago down.

We all know what happened next. I got through intermittent mild depression and anxiety, I made life-changing friendships, I learned how to love what I study and to study what I love, I rediscovered the thirst for knowledge and the boundless imagination that had governed my life before the hard road of adolescence ground them to dust. I sat in my future thesis advisor’s office in October of my junior year, talking about my midterm paper for his methods seminar, and suddenly I didn’t hate myself. I went to Oxford and I fell in love with the home of lost causes, fell deeply enough in love that, now that I’m going back next year, it seems impossible that I should ever do anything else. I learned to love the quests for beauty and for wisdom, and slowly I learned to start to value myself as a writer and a historian, a teacher, a friend. I started to learn that to be a whole person, I need to try to connect with others, and that if I expect them to give any of themselves to me, I need to screw my courage to the sticking-point and give all of myself that I can to them. I learned to see God—or, well, what I call God, which I suspect is not very much at all like what my religious friends call God—in moments of intellectual clarity, emotional vulnerability, and intense interpersonal connection that seem miraculous in their soul-soaring glow.

Well, that is all very well, said Candide, but we must cultivate our garden. It is easy to get carried away, when one thinks one has Found Spirituality, and to forget that one is tethered to the ground and one’s work is here on Earth and there isn’t anything else, anyway. That’s what I’m trying hard to remember, now, in the dark January days spend in a library basement in which I spend so much time wishing I were anywhere but here. It’s easy to forget that Princeton got me to such mental heights, and it’s easy to want to run away. Before Oxford, I was never bored, here. Depressed and lonely and insecure, yes, but never bored. The discovery of romance as part of human experience bestows upon one a pair of rose-colored spectacles, and so it’s quite understandable that this January should seem, with the spectacles removed, exceptionally gray. It’s tough to remember that this is really how the world looks, and that if we are to make our lives within it we must learn to cherish the gray alongside the rose.

And so that’s why I was so happy to write my first blog post tonight. I wrote a letter to thousands of eighteen-year-olds I’ve never met and I told them how honored I was to be able to tell them what Andy Chen told me, more or less. Four years later, the way I remember Andy’s message is that even those who have struggled the very most with lives of not-belonging can find a Princeton for themselves—even if it’s a Princeton on the margins of campus, as far as it’s possible to be from the eating clubs. I wished that for my new correspondents, and told them I couldn’t wait to tell them more about my thesis and my college and my co-op and the importance of unstructured social time and how although I’m not a “campus radical” anymore, I’m proud of the work I did as one. And then I put my computer down on the sofa and drank the last sip of my tea and tuned back in to Thomas Tallis, who was on the radio, and closed my eyes in thanks. Because, after all, Princeton changed my life: the adult who will receive a degree in June is not only four years older; she’s not the same person as the eighteen-year-old who had no idea what those four years would hold. We all get better, every day, but it can take four years’ hindsight to realize just how much.

And now I just have to get through this last semester. And I have to do whatever it takes to ensure that I finish my thesis, that I don’t forget to value every aspect of my life here and the people in it, and that I remember that every day I wake up is a chance to be better.

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