There are many ways to end up at a place like Penn, but I suspect that my own path was not a particularly original one. I was one of the many kids that talked and wrote myself a spot here, the kind who could be found caring a bit too much about the upcoming debate tournament or the school’s literary magazine and newspaper. You know the kind — the kind whose hand, shooting into the air with a sense of undue urgency, would cause English teachers to answer repeatedly with a resigned “Yes, James?”
These are the kids that tend to gravitate towards majors in the humanities or social sciences, and I met plenty of similar wisenheimers at Penn. However, unlike in high school, I found that many students here were as articulate and expressive as me. They not only cared as much as I did about things, but many were also much more informed and familiar. Even in the English classroom, for so long my stomping ground, I found that kids had insights that were just a bit sharper, hands that were just a little quicker to air to get the attention of professors.
This was not something confined to the classroom. People were generally so opinionated and passionate that I began to feel less certain of my own beliefs and ideas in general. I suspect that I was not the only one who felt this reaction. Even if we manage to hold on to our beliefs, there always seems to be those who care more, who are much more eloquent in their articulation of it. Furthermore, it seems that on many issues, the most vocal people are almost always the ones with the most extreme opinions.
Being in such a vibrant and educated community naturally leads us to doubt ourselves. My initial way of dealing with this was to become quiet. It seemed like the easiest way to avoid criticism or conflict. I didn’t even realize it at the moment, but taking two years off from school gave me time to reflect on my experience here, and I began to see that I had gradually become less confident. I had withdrawn into myself as a defense mechanism.
Such doubt is necessary on some level. Otherwise, we risk becoming caricatures — a certain president-elect comes to mind — that lack humility or self-awareness. However, I would urge everyone to hold on dearly to their individual voice, to be unwavering in their expression of it.
My withdrawal no longer became possible when I decided to write this column. My editor said on the first meeting, “The internet is forever guys. I’m not going to take down your columns, so plan accordingly if you’re preparing for future Senate runs.” I had to commit to my words, which of course were not irrefutable in their argument or perfect in their prose.
One might be surprised at the amount of hate mail that DP columnists get —mostly because one realizes how many people actually read The DP, but still. Of course, given the sensitivity of some of the issues I talk about, it seems a natural reaction. Nonetheless, I was forced to defend my thoughts and opinions in a way that I didn’t have to before. Putting yourself out there is never as easy as it sounds.
Yet, I also became convinced of the need and value of such engagement. My own thoughts were formulated and shaped by such feedback. Of course, an opinion ought to be formed through research, discussion and logical scrutiny. But at a certain point, one should have confidence enough to express such thoughts, to not speak purely in terms of personal experience but to use the ever tricky “we” — we should not, we ought to, etc.
This opens one up to criticisms of condescension and greater scrutiny, which has gotten so many writers in trouble. A personal narrative might be dismissed but never attacked in terms of content, for it’s difficult to say that what you felt or thought was “false.”
Commentary on our collective community, whether that be Penn, Philadelphia or even the United States is invaluable in creating discourse and gaining a more complete understanding of the world we live in. Otherwise, we risk living in a bubble in which we are safe but detached. Even when the world is too much with us, the walk on Locust far too dark and cold, rage against the dying of the light, for the warmth from such light will sustain us for years far beyond our time at Penn.
All comments eligible for publication in Daily Pennsylvanian, Inc. publications.