Abba Silvanus, a fourth-century monk from the Egyptian desert and a founding father of Christian monasticism, once said: “Unhappy is the man whose reputation is greater than his work.”
But in a world where many a man has profited from building up an undeserved reputation, it is a truth worth analyzing. After all, how we are perceived is often just as important to our success as what we actually do. The man may be unhappy, but he has a decent chance of landing a fellowship.
If there is one thing I know about the high school seniors flooding campus this week, it is that they know how to tell their story. Without the ability to convey a narrative, nobody gets into Yale. This is a point of institutional pride — we look beyond the numbers. Once here, telling a cohesive and captivating story becomes increasingly important: It’s how we win scholarships and get jobs and kill it at interviews. Yalies with the ability to weave their lives into a compelling web of interrelated interests and pursuits are consistently rewarded. Who we are develops and hardens in exchange with the social gaze under which it is shared; we become, slowly, the stories that others like to hear.
This makes for beautiful idealized truth, but also for reputations and public personas at times worryingly distant from the (sometimes bland) reality of who we are.
Over spring break, I had the chance to spend some time in Egypt with the Yale Monastic Archaeology Project, directed by professor Stephen Davis. The YMAP team was analyzing the remains of a monastic complex, just miles from where Abba Silvanus would have taught. The team, coming from all over the world, adopted me into their schedule with ease and hospitality. We made fun of each other, laughed, watched TV, lingered over meals. Nobody asked where I was from, what I was going to do next year, my last name, or why I had decided to join them in the desert. Halfway through, somebody asked if I was still a student.
I would wander the monasteries for hours, and when I returned I was not asked what I did. I was asked my thoughts on Syriac. At first, this puzzled me — how unlike Yale, where, out of love and concern and social habit, our standard greeting is, “What have you been up to today?” Quickly, however, freedom hit. The gift of not needing to justify my time. Not needing a prepared, pithy, sentence-long answer to what I had been doing all day. I just was. I could just be. I began to notice how much time and energy I spend each day packaging my story, processing and sharing events. At the monastery, I had no Internet, no camera, no impulse to filter my experience for external consumption.
As I returned to campus I started to wonder (during thesis-writing breaks) if I had become more invested in my reputation — how my life was perceived — than in how it was actually lived. If I had become like the proverbial villagers who, instead of learning to fight, learned only to build more formidable shields.
A few weeks later, I heard my friend McKay Nield ’14 describe a project he had designed, in which he took six students on a tour of New Haven. Unbeknownst to them, he had prepared three different recordings of city tours, with every two students downloading one to their iPods. The first tour was a gruesome narration of the various crimes that had happened in New Haven, the second set to bouncing music and about the color yellow and a third neutral tour about the history of the city. They had been synced up as carefully as possible, so that at the moment one group was told to turn left and look at the yellow store sign, another was told to turn left and heard about a stabbing that had occurred underneath the sign. Afterwards, the students on the yellow tour shared how happy and upbeat they felt, prompting the neutral tour students to agree that the music had also put them in a great mood.
When asked about her experience, one of the girls on the crime tour mumbled something about music and happiness, mimicking her peers. After the big reveal, she explained that having heard her peers share their reactions, she assumed she had done something wrong, perhaps downloaded a track she wasn’t supposed to listen to. This is what McKay deemed “the silent minority” — the way in which those with dissonant realities suppress the truth of their experiences, assuming that any impressions so different must be wrong. I think we’ve all experienced that: the tendency to hold back our own truths, to the point that sometimes we don’t even recognize them.
Tuesday concluded the holiday of Passover, a celebration of both storytelling and freedom. While stories are nice, they also shackle. We impose a heavy burden when we both expect from ourselves and demand of others a constant stream of stories.
Maybe next time, don’t greet someone passing on the street with, “How is your day going?” but with a simple, “Hey, it’s good to see you.” Knowing the details of someone’s daily life is one form of intimacy, but it is hardly the most rewarding. On the monastery, I was accepted sight unseen, with no pressure to prove I was interesting or worthy. To not always need an answer in hand, to exist without justification — that’s a step towards happiness.