When it comes to organized programs and events that are focused around a group campus experience, such as NSOP, there are two basic types of people. There are those who approach such programs sincerely and enthusiastically, who are genuinely devoted to making the experience a positive and productive one—or at least they’re good at seeming that way. (Most people who become OLs, I imagine, are this type.) Then there are those who skulk around the edges, muttering witty and cutting comments to their friends during inspirational speeches, completely divorced from it all—or at least they’re good at seeming that way.
Obviously, whenever you try to divide the world into two types of people, it’s easy to find an exception. Nevertheless, I tend to place myself in the second category. Both as a freshman and as an observing senior working tech for NSOP, I was cautious and cynical, distrustful of the hyper-enthusiasm bubbling all around me. I wanted friends as a freshman, but I didn’t want to make them the way it seemed I had to—by living the smiling lie of the “New York college dream.” I didn’t want to latch onto a thrown-together group of people and cling to them like flotation devices for a week, agreeing loudly and whole-heartedly that “college is the best!” I thought of NSOP as contrived, and so I dissed and dismissed it, ditching mandatory and non-mandatory social events, many of which I ironically had to sit through or observe in my capacity as a tech worker this year.
Of course, my cynicism is in many ways a defense mechanism. By refusing to take NSOP seriously, by laughing in the face of what I perceived as naked sincerity, I gave myself insurance, a built-in excuse for why it didn’t work for me. As David Foster Wallace says, “irony tyrannizes us.” When you place yourself above meaning, you’re forced to stay there. And so we actually do lock ourselves into a cynical/uncynical binary. The cynics scoff at the non-cynics, and the non-cynics pity the cynics for their inability to say what they “really feel.” When I recognize my cynicism as a defense mechanism, I’m tempted to say that I would be happier if I took a more positive attitude, that I should have tried harder as a freshman, that I should have found a way to express my negative feelings honestly instead of keeping them to myself. But that, I think, is the easy answer, the acceptable answer.
The death of Martha Corey-Ochoa complicated my idea for this column. I acknowledge the weight of the tragedy and also that it is not in any sense my tragedy. Those who didn’t know Corey-Ochoa cannot presume to know her circumstances, but I recognize that there are people among the cynics and the non-cynics who are profoundly suffering. That suffering is personal, and perhaps it can be helped or changed. But perhaps it can’t.
And we all have personal circumstances, even if they do not involve that kind of suffering. Our social narrative, though, privileges positivity and extroversion. The campus dialogue that has flared up recently regarding wellness is important, and those who need help should absolutely have the space and resources to ask for it. However, criticisms that the campus atmosphere is “too negative” or that we should be “friendlier” to one another overlook the range of human personalities, circumstances, and coping mechanisms. Cynicism may be a defense mechanism, but so is the enthusiasm of those exulting that “college is the best!” Being alone but content is not inferior to being a social butterfly. Sometimes you just honestly don’t want to talk to that other person in the elevator.
And so, should I really look back on my NSOP experience with regret that I didn’t “try harder?” Do we really want a campus of grinning automatons? Isn’t there a bright side to having a negative side, so to speak? Having a less positive, “open” way of expressing yourself doesn’t make your humanity null and void. Although this may come as a surprise, I do have nostalgia for my NSOP days. There are lines in orientation speeches that speak to me. I love being with my friends and I love making new ones. But I also reserve the right to skulk on the sidelines and engage in light mockery. In the end, I’ve decided to embrace a cliché that is surely offered to freshmen many times during NSOP, and be myself.
Cecille de Laurentis is a Barnard College senior majoring in Asian and Middle Eastern Cultures. Modest Proposals runs alternate Fridays.