During the 2008 Beijing Olympics, rumors circulated that China was faking the ages of its women’s gymnastics team, perhaps allowing girls as young as 14 or 15 to compete. At the time, I was astounded: People my age were in the Olympics, winning medals in front of a worldwide audience?
The Sochi Olympics ended on Sunday, and they were the first I’ve been able to watch in college. Things were different this time around. “Look at this guy,” a friend said a couple weeks ago as we watched snowboarders trying to qualify for the final. “He’s my age, my height, my weight. We’re the same person.”
What he said was funny, but it didn’t feel that strange or surprising. At this point, most Olympians are somewhere around our age.
“What have I done with my life?” he asked jokingly.
But those of us without world-class athletic skills are going on with our lives. Like the majority of my peers in the Class of 2016, I have a fresh new major. Two of them, actually.
Of course, nothing’s set in stone. “History” and “Government & Legal Studies” are just getting comfortable in that “My Academic Profile” tab on Polaris. I could major in one and minor in another. I could drop both and major in something else entirely. I could drop out of school altogether. But for now, I’ve got a plan. I’ve got an idea of what I want to do. If nothing else, I have a path of least resistance, and I have a solid answer when a relative or a prospective employer or a complete stranger asks what I’m studying.
In “The Political Mind,” cognitive linguist George Lakoff argues that, since we were born, our brains have been internalizing what he calls “cultural narratives.” Essentially, he says that common archetypal narratives (the Horatio Alger success story, the redemption story, etc.) are hammered into our brains as we are exposed to them again and again. We fall back on these narratives as we try to understand the stories of the people around us, even if their stories don’t fit neatly into any of them.
“The Political Mind” focuses on our perceptions of public issues and public figures—like politicians or, maybe, Olympians. NBC figured out decades ago that they could exploit cultural narratives. The network treats every American star, it seems, to a feature or a post-competition interview designed to peg him or her as a character we recognize.
Sometimes it’s inspiring, and other times the network overplays its hand and we recognize that we’re being tricked.
An interviewer asks a skier still in full uniform about his deceased brother and brings him to tears. “Got it,” it seems like we’re supposed to think subconsciously. “This is Bode ‘Overcoming Adversity’ Miller!”
Last week, after I watched this interview, I started thumbing through Lakoff’s book again. This time something else struck me. He writes: “We live our narratives. The lived story is at the center of modern personality theory.”
Right now, there’s a display in a Smith Union hallway of students whose activities at the McKeen Center are literally presented as linear narratives, with cards detailing their activities connected by pieces of yarn. These experiences probably only play a small part in the way they see the overarching cultural narratives of their lives, but the display is an interesting form for telling their stories. Unlike a resume or a biographical paragraph, they acknowledge that there’s a lot of life happening in between those activities.
I’m just starting to get to the point where I can begin to see which cultural narratives my life might fit into, and that gets to the heart of why choosing a major has been a bittersweet thing. Sure, it might be a big milestone in a college student’s life, but it’s also a tough pill to swallow, and a lot of that has to do with its power to influence how we see our own narrative.
In other words, it feels like there’s a lot more to lose than there is to gain. “This is a new breed of the sophomore slump,” Kate Witteman ’15 wrote in the Orient around this time last year. “This slump is the emotional consequence of us narrowing our paths.”
So now I’m thinking about my own narrative like it’s on that wall in Smith Union, too: one big milestone, sure, but with a hell of a lot in between. When we don’t have anything else to go on, our brains resort to cultural narratives to create rough schematics of the people around us. The choice between a major in Mathematics and a major in English can feel like the difference between “young career-oriented professional” and “aimless millennial.” But we know ourselves better than that. There’s still a lot of yarn left between choosing a major and whatever comes next.