My mother is a lively woman with an infectious, uncompromising spirit. Growing up, she encouraged me to always express myself. She taught me that feelings were important and legitimate, not something to be trivialized or brushed aside, and to never feel ashamed of my personality, that it should be cherished instead.
My father, more calm and logical in nature, had a different lesson to teach. According to him, we each come into the world embodying a unique, unrefined shape, until over time as we interact and rub against each other, the spikes and rough edges of our personalities whittle down, leaving behind smooth, frictionless orbs. This social process thereby reduces potential interpersonal conflict and primes us for our professional lives. So, this was good.
When I transitioned to middle school at an elite all-boys K-12 institution in NYC, there was perhaps hardly a better candidate for this kind of whittling-down than me. If everyone else my year was shaping up nicely to become a pyramid or octahedron, I was a straight-up sea urchin. On my first day, I naively believed that my wild, flamboyant character would be as popular at my new school as it had been at the public school I attended previously. Fortunately, survival instincts kicked in sometime after homeroom, and those absurd fantasies were burned vigorously and unceremoniously at the stake.
It was ti be an interesting seven years. My aspiration was to eventually be one of the senior boys in the student center, lazing indiscriminately beneath couch cushions and oversized hoodies, dripping pizza on sticky linoleum floors. If you didn’t have interest in attending a school basketball game, groupthink proclaimed you a hater. Communication was not generally a thing except in the form of a crude joke or a vague grunt. Actual conversations were disturbingly rare.
Prolonged exposure to this mind-numbing conformity and affected indifference made its mark on me. I became aware that my perspective on personal expression was not only an uncommon one, but — as I had assumed it was a universal attitude — that it was a perspective at all. I increasingly began to doubt the validity and importance of my values, opinions, likes, dislikes — essentially everything that had come to define who I was.
I had thought that, certainly, my school was just a very particular microcosm from a select crowd and would be no way representative of how things would be in college. Yet, after two years at Penn, it has become apparent, I think, that this culture of ennui – commonly referred to as “having chill” – was not specific to my school, but is an affliction of our entire generation.
Failure comes in many different forms, especially at a school whose mantra is “work hard, play hard”. Voicing an opinion or feeling comes with the risk of rejection, which can be just as devastating as academic failure. If we want to be risk averse, our thoughts, emotions, opinions, and personalities become complicated, uncool, controversial, polarizing, even threatening. In the interest of keeping social interactions peaceful and pleasant, these must be repressed and neutered. We deny our own personhoods, forfeit the advanced mental capabilities gifted uniquely to us as humans, so that we may become disengaged automatons that function more smoothly in society and are better equipped to preserve our sacred cult of apathy and complacency. We get drunk and high to help ward off pesky thoughts — all thoughts, to be sure, since they all run the risk of being disagreeable — while dim lighting and the dull throbbing of bass speakers somewhere in the background complete the ideal sensory-free experience. Any sign of originality, passion, or life not only causes extreme discomfort but also suggests an infirmity who does not comprehend the sanctity of these unspoken conventions.
Being chill, then, is about staying in our comfort zones. But life should not be about staying in one’s comfort zone — in fact, college, if anything, should be about venturing out of it. If we are not exposed to new and even opposing ideas, how will we find the stimuli necessary for growth? As students of Penn who hopefully aspire to lead and serve, we must engage, interact, and seek to live our best, most passionate lives, as opposed to retreating into the lull of monotony.
Yet it seems for many of us that our need for safety from social isolation outweighs our desire for discovery or development. For the sake of getting along, we keep our thoughts to ourselves. But what does a nameless face absent smoking a joint, slouched over the arm of a crumbling couch at a frat party, have to offer other than a hit? When we do not allow ourselves to honestly think and feel –what distinguishes the living from the programmed, why being organically alive is superior to being artificially intelligent, the very essence of our humanness – how can we expect anyone to get to know or connect with us at all? Are we not only distancing ourselves more absolutely, even preemptively?
Perhaps the real problem lies in the framework within which we interact, that we view opposing opinions as threats to be quelled rather than perspectives to be openly discussed and respectfully considered. No opinion can be fully right or wrong, black or white. There is no reproducible formula for telling us how to feel or think in every scenario; personalities cannot be evaluated by a panel of professors and assigned grades of A through F.
But when it comes to expressing our most genuine selves, while we risk the possibility of being assigned an F by one grader, we gain the opportunity of being awarded an A by another. And while frictionless orbs may glide silently past each other, they will never mesh together like two adjacent pieces of a puzzle — imperfectly jagged, yet perfectly adjoining.
BEN ZOU is a rising College junior from New York, N.Y. studying Economics. His email is email@example.com. "Zou it All" appears every other Thursday.
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