“I feel like I always have to try really hard to fit in.”
“The person I’m pretending to be at BC isn’t the person I really am.”
“I don’t know how much longer I can keep up this façade.”
“I’m not happy here.”
Last week, I went on the all-senior Halftime 76 (fact: the best Halftime ever), where quotes like the above were repeated to the point of being quasi-clichés. Even in our final year, many of my peers feel a tension between who they really are and who Boston College expects them to be. Student after student confessed to consciously performing an identity that felt unnatural to them in an effort to conform to social expectations.
This didn’t come as a complete shock to me, and was even somewhat reassuring, since this has largely been my experience as well. But more interesting to me was how this sentiment diverged from the more optimistic discourse that pervades life on campus. “We are BC! Let’s go Eagles!” “My classes are annoying, but I love all my floormates.” “I’ve made the best friends of my life here.” “I’m so glad I came to BC!” These two soundtracks play in parallel, in a sort of messy, contrapuntal cacophony that approaches contradiction without ever fully confronting each other.
But the latter script, the persistent gleefulness about all things Boston College that is demanded of us from the moment we step onto campus for orientation, is often belted at the top of our collective lungs, while the unease that many students feel is reduced to a refrained hummed so softly that it becomes difficult to discern whether it even exists. Soon, it becomes functionally inaudible, which is also to say unsayable and unthinkable. BC is a god that demands songs of praise be sung constantly and emphatically, and the lyrical lament my peers and I composed on Halftime is silenced. The first rule of Fight Club is you don’t talk about Fight Club; the first rule of BC is we are BC. "Here’s a Superfan shirt," they say, "You’ll wear this for the rest of your life and you’ll feel great every time."
We want to fit in and we fear missing out. I would suggest, however, that these designations of “in” and “out” are somewhat misleading; they imply that the FOMO and pressure to conform that we feel are primarily related to the values of a community of which we wish to be a part. This is not the case; rather, it is precisely the opposite. We don’t feel FOMO because we’re worried about not being members of the community as individuals, but because the community dictates to us the modes of individuality that are permissible. We tend to presuppose that being “in” the community and being a “cool” (read: acceptable) person are coterminous. In other words, we don’t simply want to fit in as we are, we want to change ourselves in order to fit in, and thus we perform the “BC bro/biddy” identity in an effort to convince our peers—and ourselves—that we, too, are worthy of the Superfan shirt. It’s not about community, it’s about accepting a particular version of who we are supposed to be as individuals.
We don’t simply want to conform ourselves to an abstract set of values. Rather, our impulse towards performance is predicated upon the notion that everybody else is already “in”—and therefore, “cool”—without putting forth any effort. We fear missing out because missing out seems to be a real possibility for us, while everybody else is preternaturally disposed towards coolness and acceptability. We want to be BC bros because everybody else already is, and we castigate ourselves because we are not. We could almost all name the external attributes of this paradigmatic Eagle, but more important are the intangibles. The ideal BC student is self-assured, unflappable, completely confident. She studies, laughs, chats, parties, hooks up, smiles, interns, graduates, works, succeeds, achieves without any self-doubt or negativity. She is, most importantly, completely at home at BC. As I said, the first rule of Fight Club is you don’t talk about Fight Club; giving voice to the discontent many of us feel angers the ideal BC student, reminding us that we are not what we are “supposed” to be, and thus we stay quiet.
We go to Conte to cheer for cool people we don’t know, then return to our dorms and worry that everyone else is having more fun than we are. Here’s the thing: the perfect BC student that we’re attempting to become does not actually exist.
The ideal Eagle is precisely that: ideal. He does not exist, because he cannot, and the perpetuation of this lie hinders our ability to seek out and create a truer sense of self during our time at BC. This mythical figure gives us dogmatic answers, but the language of discernment is a language of questions. Being authentically human means being insecure. To doubt is to be in the process of finding oneself, a process that is never fully completed or finally resolved. Boston College should be a place to seek out and create oneself—and maybe, if we’re lucky, God—but instead we are told what we are supposed to find, and then frustrated by our failure to measure up.
The good news is that there are tools of resistance: we can talk about Fight Club. Fight Club hates being talked about, because talking about it makes it real. Talking about it means it isn’t just me, and it isn’t just you, and we aren’t weird. Talking about it means we can do something about it. Talking about it means we can acknowledge that there is no joy in unquestioned fealty to an ideal, no consolation in a t-shirt. Joy comes from seeking, but seeking is a painful endeavor. Talking about Fight Club means we are permitted to express the painful non-identity that comes with discernment, not silence and stigmatize it. It means we can be vulnerable, or, more accurately, we can acknowledge we are vulnerable, and recognize that vulnerability as a necessary prerequisite for joy. Being vulnerable in a community that valorizes (read: deifies) strength is challenging, but only a vulnerable community can form the whole person, and refusing the BC ideal’s demand for faithful apathy is the first step towards creating that community.
Let me be very clear: I am not criticizing Boston College itself. Nor am I criticizing those who, like myself, go to football games, wear Superfan shirts, cheer loudly and generally consider themselves proud to be Eagles. Nothing is wrong with any of those things in themselves. My issue is with a culture in which the first set of quotes above is silenced and stigmatized by the second set. In such a culture, the first set is spoken more and more quietly until nobody is even permitted to say it outside of the “touchy-feely” space of retreats. I would suggest that such a culture is not conducive to forming and caring for the whole person in the manner that is central to BC’s Jesuit identity. That’s why the voices that spoke on Halftime must be heard on campus, not out of a purely sentimental sensitivity to feelings, but in the interest of forming a community of discernment in which the painful process of seeking is possible.
We have to hear the stories of insecurity alongside the stories of confidence, and we must call out the falsity of the imaginary ideal Eagle to which we too often hold ourselves accountable. Jewish tradition teaches that Abraham’s father, Terah, was an idol-maker. One day Abraham smashed his father’s idols in order to demonstrate the falsity of their divine claim and encourage worship of the God of Israel. Then, he responded to God’s (somewhat preposterous) call to “go forth” from the homeland he knew to an unspecified promised land. I would suggest that we must do the same: smash the idols we are told to worship, then go forth and create a community of discernment. Smashing idols is difficult, and the journey that follows is perilous, but if tradition is to be trusted, it’s worth it. We may not get where we expected to go, but we’ll find some interesting things along the way.