Envision your typical Thursday. Mine goes something like this: a quiet morning to myself, lunch with a member of my Sponsor Group, class, office hours, Mock Trial practice, and then an evening with friends. I tend to think of my Thursdays as a universe in which my peers and professors orbit around the stable entity that is me. I know that all around me, you people are going about your own Thursdays. However, this awareness of other experiences doesn’t necessarily permeate my daily consciousness. When I run into you on Marston Quad, I don’t ration much thought to where you came from or where you’re heading. You’re just making a guest appearance in my Thursday.
My false sense of stardom can be put in sociological terms, at least according to my friend who is taking an interpersonal communications course at Vanderbilt University. She told me that my idea of myself is totally off. While I see myself as the constant in a sea of variables, she says that we are all defined by our contexts. She cited one scholar in particular, Erving Goffman, who sees the self as a dramaturgical concept. Goffman argues that our outward manifestation of self is completely dependent on the reactions we are seeking from others, the most common ones being inclusion, intimacy, and control. Inside, we are conducting dramaturgical analyses of the people around us and what we want from them, reducing them to characters in a scene. As the scene culminates, a sense of self emerges, in some ways nothing but a dramatic aftereffect.
After my friend got all Copernican on me, I spent the following days skulking around my own life, alternately fascinated and disgusted by how true Goffman’s ideas rang. Now, instead of being the shining sun of my own universe, my inner life had been reduced to a slovenly middle-aged dude in a director’s chair, yelling at all the nubile young folks on stage to “give me something to work with, darlings!”
The fun thing about sociology, though, is that you escape culpability by being the product of society. I started to think about why we humans are so blind to the grand scheme of things.
The Claremont Consortium makes it awfully easy for the world to feel like a stage. These schools are marketed to us as a freeway to self-actualization. Then we arrive in a custom-tailored setting, ready for our respective debuts. Making new friends during our first year of college is almost the opposite of the first year of high school, where a North Face jacket and a willingness to idol-worship will get you halfway there. Conformity is no longer the name of the game. After our increasingly stagnant high school careers, we embark high on the myth that college consists of the four most fun, adventurous, and formative years of our entire lives. No pressure. And no wonder that we might fall prey to self-grandeur even in the minutiae of our day-to-day college lives.
I don’t want to speak for everyone, but it’s hard not to hear recurring themes while eavesdropping on campus. “He seemed into me last weekend, and now he acts indifferently when I see him at Frank.” “I want to stick with pre-med, but my philosophy professor seems, like, super-into me joining the department.”
Students here tend to speak of themselves as the primary impetus behind the behavior of other people, or even institutions. Is that assumption entirely inaccurate, as an undergraduate at a small liberal arts college? Perhaps not. However, the real world—whatever that is—will quickly extinguish such a presumption. Even here, no individual student is so great a driving force. We know this on a conscious level. But if we pay attention to the way we speak, or even to the way we think, we may find an unprecedented, unwarranted theatricality.
It takes a lot of effort to change the way you view yourself. Personally, I am going to make the effort to stop thinking of Thursdays as my Thursdays. The more humanity we attribute to the people we pass by, the more empathy we feel toward them. Alternatively, reducing them to characters limits us to a shallow understanding of who they are. An internal effort to swing the spotlight away from ourselves will reveal the profound beauty of everything else within our personal universes.