My freshman fall, I was still reeling from two breakups I’d gone through my last year of high school. One was with a friend, and one was with a boyfriend. At 17 years old, the loss of those relationships wreaked total havoc on my sense of self. It was my first encounter with grief and rage, and it lasted longer than I’d like to admit.
Among the many things to come out of that encounter, and the love I received from friends and family as I trudged through it, was some clarity as I entered Bowdoin about who I was and what I cared about. I felt lucky to start college like that, but it was short lived. As we all do in our first (and second, and third and fourth) years here, I lost that clarity quickly, and over and over again.
This reckoning was an unpleasant one that first semester. Then some time that November, I came across Brené Brown’s TED Talk, “The Power of Vulnerability.” A now-famous social worker with her own Netflix special, Brown has done a lot of research on vulnerability, and it distills down to this one idea: you can’t experience love and connection without risk and failure. It was simple and inspiring to my first-year self in the throes of heartbreak, and I promised to embrace my pain and shame in exchange for intimacy and a better understanding of who I was.
It was lofty; it’s proved immensely easier said than done. But it was also thrillingly tangible. Within days of watching Brown’s talk, I called up my old high school friend-turned-foe, and divulged to her my apologies and confessions, and my accusations. It went horribly, and we still don’t talk—but I’m glad we’re no longer friends because of what was said, rather than what wasn’t.
I did break the promise to myself and would keep breaking it. I’ve found this especially easy to do at Bowdoin, where our failures are hyper-visible and never anonymous, where we are intensely critical of one another, mostly because of how much we can see. Had I been a braver person, I would have let myself be more visible at Bowdoin—within my relationships and beyond them. I would have majored in art, despite feeling like I wasn’t creative or talented enough. I would have told people I loved them earlier than I did, even though I knew they didn’t love me back. I would have been loud and expressive and inarticulate about my feelings. I would have had fights that needed to be had. I would have tried out for improv in spite of my belief that my humor is solely incidental. I would not have held back sobs in Moulton Light Room as often as I did. Yes, I would have cried openly at 11:30 a.m. on a Wednesday while sitting squarely at the back, center table, facing outward.
At the beginning of sophomore year, while moving into our room together, my roommate, Callye, tacked a list of her year-long goals to the wall by her bed and said, “Please don’t make fun of me.” One of her tasks was to start an all-female comedy troupe. Nine months later, she and the rest of Purity Pact hosted their first show in front of a packed Kresge Auditorium, and have done so every semester since. I watched Callye confront deep mortification and fear about her comedy as she placed herself time and time again under the Bowdoin microscope—but she kept writing and kept performing. Of course, it changed her life. But that’s the kind of vulnerability which can change a place, too.
I’ve watched so many people at Bowdoin shrink and limit and stifle themselves so as to avoid not just failure, but the microscope. Myself included. More recently, though, I have realized that while scrutiny is out of my control, I can, at least, let myself fail. Not only can I choose to do so, but it will also deepen my friendships and understanding of myself, like it did four years ago. That this is as tangible now as it was then; it can even still be thrilling.
Someone pointed out to me that vertigo is the fear of falling, not the fall itself. I know that the few moments in the past four years in which I forewent vertigo and entered unchartered waters were my best—when I was most grateful for my friends, when I saw myself most clearly, when I finally knew what I wanted. I also know that being suspended, pre-fall, in indecision, was generally excruciating. I regret the extent to which vertigo ruled my life here. Mostly, though, I regret not having more compassion and respect for those who made choices with no certainty that the microscope would be kind to them.
Mentors and leaders at Bowdoin speak often of embracing “everything the College has to offer,” but speak little of the collective fear of visibility which holds many of us back from doing exactly that. I wish they were more explicit about the fact that to make the most of our time here is to be in constant battle with this fear—and about what the battle will look like. The lack of an agenda, a vision, a checklist, has been agonizing. But now, in my last semester, I’m making my own. My offer of the College would start here: among nature and the art that we “count an intimate friend” must be disappointment, sadness, embarrassment and heartbreak. And to “lose yourself in generous enthusiasms” is to step into plain sight, for everyone to see.
Lucia Ryan is a member of the Class of 2019.