How do you sleep at night? I ask this with none of the sanctimony that usually accompanies the question. I genuinely want to know what it is you tell yourself that allows you the requisite peace of mind to slip into unconsciousness at night. For me, it’s delusion and 3-5 mg of melatonin.
Delusion—to be deluded—is essentially to maintain belief in a conception that contradicts what is generally accepted as reality. Delusion permeates the human experience on both an anthropological and individual level. So many societal conventions that we willingly partake in—take monogamy as a great example—offer such tragically low chances at ending in anything but abject chaos or emotional injury, that our species-wide insistence on participating in it simply must be at least partially due to some collective delusion that is hardwired into our brains.
Delusion in an individual is far more tricky and more susceptible to being pathologized. DSM-5 defines a “delusion of grandeur” as a fixed, false belief that one possesses superior qualities such as genius, fame, omnipotence, or wealth. If such is the case, then I’d posit that that type of divorce from reality, to some degree, is not only healthy, but also fundamentally necessary to attaining a livable sense of self-worth and esteem.
Before coming to Columbia, my delusions of grandeur practically inscribed themselves onto me. My developmental years were spent in a town that was matched in its stillness only by its whiteness, so when I arrived on the scene from San Francisco as a 12-year-old biracial Chinese Jew, my deviation from the town’s homogeneity spoke for itself. As the years passed in the Caucasian twilight zone that I was forced to inhabit, my delusion—supplemented by encouraging teachers and my overbearing Chinese mother—was my escape.
The idea that I possessed some greater intellect or greater skill that would eventually allow me to leave the tiny town I felt so suffocated by was one of such potence that I would go as far as to call it a survival mechanism. Perhaps it was born out of a desperation to escape the otherness I felt so victimized by during the scourge of my middle school years (a bit of an “if you can’t join them, beat them” mentality). Regardless, the ethos that my validation awaited me in some distant, shimmering city—New York City—carried me through my high school years.
My delusions of grandeur consumed me in high school, partially because I needed them, but also because it was so easy to have them. The sense of distinction and uniqueness that I had crafted from my feelings of alienation and otherness led me to pursue a litany of things that aligned themselves with it—playing the double bass (mostly because I knew nobody else wanted to) and pretending to be a lawyer on mock trial, to name two big ones. It was not my involvement in these activities that made me think I was special or skilled; it was my delusion of being special that led me to these activities. In having my starting point be rooted in baseless confidence, I created a positive feedback loop that worked in my favor.
I am certain that a majority of students, if not all students, at Columbia operate under delusions of grandeur as well. The very act of applying to Columbia, knowing that the chances of admittance are razor-thin, proves as much. But was it not a tiny piece of ourselves that genuinely believed we deserved to be here that motivated us to apply? If, as a collective group, we had married ourselves to operating within the bounds of what was “realistic” and “un-delusional,” none of us would have paid the $80 application fee to vie for acceptance to a school that takes roughly one in 20 applicants.
An indirect result of attending an institution with such a cutthroat admission rate is that it essentially groups this nation’s most deluded “I’m special” types together. Existing in such an environment forced me to confront my relative mediocrity, something that was entirely new and wildly unsettling for me. The death of my long-held belief that I was special (RIP 1998-2016) was one that I initially regarded with some optimism: If my relative mediocrity was rooted in truth, then wasn’t my acceptance of it a good thing? Didn’t Confucius, the wildly problematic Chinese scholar I named my beloved cat after, say “the object of the superior man is truth”?
Being aware of the truth is a good thing in its own right. But we exist in a bubble of hypercompetition on an island of hypercompetition, and the reality of internalizing the truth of one’s being lackluster is, in reality, a banal and unproductive one. During this most recent internship application season, which happened to coincide with a bad bout of depression, I found that laying out all my achievements in terse, bulleted sentences, to be inevitably lost in an email flurry of similar résumés from scores of other hopeful college students, only amplified the general discouragement I was experiencing. I was well aware that the possibility of my résumé being considered even vaguely memorable was incredibly small, and that knowledge, that truth, did the opposite of setting me free—it pinned me into a cage of self-doubt.
So, I have unilaterally decided to resuscitate my delusions of grandeur: operating under the notion that I have something unparalleled to offer the universe, that I really am the special half-Chinese virtuosa that I spent a solid amount of my childhood believing I was. The latter delusion is perhaps the one thing that allowed me to make the necessary leap into improbability that landed me everything I can confidently say I am proud of myself for: being at Columbia, getting this column, learning how to cook beyond adding water and microwave time. The belief—the delusion—that I could somehow distinguish myself in this hypercompetitive hellscape known as Columbia University in the City of New York is necessarily followed by actualization of that delusion. As such, I have decided to bid adieu to the truth. Shalom, zai jian, adiós. And yes, I do know how to say ‘goodbye’ in four languages; ain’t that special?
Arielle Isack is a sophomore in GS majoring in American studies. She wants to know what bed of lies you sleep on at night. Let her know at email@example.com. Not A Relationship Girl runs alternate Fridays.
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