The Didion Conundrum

Letter-From-The-Editor, Spring 2013

By: Margaret Nickens

When I first arrived at Brown, an encyclopedia’s worth of advice was dumped into my lap and, being an immortal, unbreakable teenager, I ignored every single warning. I was cautioned that, if I chose to eat a Spicy With at Jo’s every single night, I would likely gain the Freshman 15 within a month. I was warned about the existence of the SciLi challenge. (Whether such a warning carried with it an encouragement or a discouragement, I could never really tell.) Only in passing, however, did anyone really hint at the Sophomore Slump. To be sure, it came up occasionally, but only tangentially and superficially. Maybe because no one can really touch on the nature of the phenomenon, because only in experiencing this pampered nothingness can you really understand the depths of slumping. Or because once you have been to the bottom and climbed back out, you can never discuss where you have been. To look back would be to risk turning into a pillar of salt.

Freshman year is awash in the newness of college. Everything is pretty and green, even when the winter chill has forced you into hibernation and limited your wardrobe to inherently unattractive, chunky sweaters. Everyone is interesting and squeaky clean. Your friends’ quirks are still funny. The rundown classrooms and unpalatable food still seem adorably “Brown.” Yet, when sophomore year hits, it becomes just a little bit harder to accept these eccentricities. They begin to grind on you, aggravating the anxiety, which already eats at your consciousness. Many of us begin to question our choices, our concentrations, our purposes.

For me, it began the summer after freshman year. I was living in New York City working for a local newspaper when the loneliness nearly ate me alive. In his novel, Sport of the Gods, Paul Dunbar perfectly captures the empty rush of the city, writing, “The lights in the busy streets will bewilder and entice him. He will feel shy and helpless amid the hurrying crowds. A new emotion will take his heart as the people hasten by him, –a feeling of loneliness, almost of grief, that with all these souls about him he knows not one and not one of them cares for him.” I knew people—fellow interns, editors, my roommate — but within the maze of the city — befriending someone, understanding someone, is an uncommon luxury. So I spent the summer watching, huddling alone in magnificent parks and historic museums, and trying to feel something. I felt as if I was wasting it all – wasting New York, where so much culture has lived and died, wasting youth when I had few responsibilities or burdens. At the end of the day, it seemed to me that there was little purpose to working tirelessly to write a story, to seeing the most famous works of art, to looking at the house of a once-famous writer. I became obsessed with experiencing life and incapable of doing so at the same time.

When I came back to Brown in the fall, I thought I was free. I was home. I thought these annoying, tireless questions would no longer creep into my brain when I was bored, would no longer haunt my every action. But it seemed to me that, in the shadow of having to declare a concentration, having to choose a future, everyone reeked of the same questions. Everywhere I turned, I could see the same fear in my friends’ eyes. I could smell the anxiety seeping from their bodies like sweat. The studying, the applying, all seemed useless and wasteful – because we are nineteen and young and free. But then the partying and hook-ups grew annoying too. We were going through the same motions without the feeling. Dancing without a rhythm, and singing off-key. For a few minutes, we could escape our own brains by immersing ourselves in work. Sophomore year, you become involved with everything so that when you finally lay in bed at night, you cannot think. You attempt to run away from your conscious and from your being.

But you can’t really leave it all behind. The questions lurk, waiting for you to have an empty moment, and when you do, they fill it all with their desolation. College means nothing. Studying means nothing. Friendship means nothing. Life means nothing. It’s clawing and creeping and unavoidable, and you become so exhausted and feel so generic in your depression that no one speaks of it. No one speaks of the slump. It may manifest itself in conversations about uncertain personal or academic decisions, but these discussions never really touch the bare truth; each is left to grapple with the confusion on his or her own. Further, as we are so blessed to be at Brown, we feel guilty for our own feelings of lostness. You have come this far. So how, in your right mind, can you cry yourself to sleep at night? It’s an endless loop that always, always comes back to self-loathing.

In this pit, I lost myself for a while. I saw a lot of other people lose themselves too. And it’s easy to abort your own personality with a shot glass and a bong. It’s so very easy to leave the essential you in the middle of a sticky, sweaty room attached to a nameless, faceless stranger. And then just keep going, metamorphasizing until you create a human that is so different from where you began that you no longer have to question it all. If you are not yourself, you don’t have to figure out your purpose. In Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays, she writes, “I know what ‘nothing’ means, and keep on playing.” And many of us play it as it lays. We let meaninglessness be the rule of the game.

But at some point I couldn’t do that anymore. Maybe it was over winter break when my mom looked at me and asked me why I had so much rage, why I looked at her like she was a stranger. Maybe it was when I stopped being able to go to sleep on a Friday night without drinking a handle of rum. I need, and firmly believe that everyone needs, a purpose, a promise of something more.

It seems ludicrous, even childish, to discuss such a generic concept – the meaning of life. I could watch a Disney movie if I wanted a concise summary of what I needed to be happy. But watching these movies, reading these books, tells me that being good and productive and sociable will be enough, will give my life a theme. Yet, at the end of the day, if there is no retribution for the evil, no promise of comfort after all this toil, no greater being who loves me beyond any human capacity, life feels hollow.

When I failed to find purpose in my friends, in my studies, or even in my family, I released my inhibitions and my preconceptions. I’m a writer for heaven’s sake. I live to break normalcy. So I had a little faith and let life be more than a series of rote actions. And when I unclenched my fist just a little, God took my hand. He told me, when being a straight-A student, when getting the most prestigious internships, when having an attractive boyfriend is no longer enough, let me be your purpose. When you fail a midterm, and don’t get an internship, and your boyfriend cheats on you, let me hold your pain for you. He told me, when you slump and can’t lift your head up because everything feels so heavy, let me be your back brace. Let me carry you. He told me, when everyone turns away and fails you and when you turn away and fail everyone, I will love you. I will always love you.

I will be the first to admit that my faith is infantile. It is not supported by airtight arguments and solid facts. It is only affirmed by the peace I can sometimes feel, the gentle calm and contentment that seems so much more attainable. I am no closer to understanding my path, but knowing that someone is guiding me is enough. Christianity is not always a language of words. Sometimes, it is a language of knowing and feeling and being. “The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.” (Romans 8:26) Sometimes wordless groans are the only things that make sense, the only sounds that can comfort an aching soul.

I still cry and fall and question, but the concrete doesn’t feel so hard anymore. There is a bit of cushion, an extra hand to help me feel a bit steadier. I am writing about my experience now because I know a lot of you are feeling this pain, this slump. I know a lot of you feel an endless anxiety about your future. And I want to tell you that you can free yourself from the torment. You will still have to experience the grind and the grime, but in God’s arms, you can escape and feel whole. You can look over the peaks of the mountain and see beauty, not clouds. You don’t have to play it as it lays. You can change the rules. We are Brown students for heaven’s sake. We can be more.

Don’t settle for life when you can have eternity. Find your Cornerstone, and breathe.

Love always,

Margaret Nickens

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