“I had to take the batteries out of my vibrator and put them in my calculator for my midterm.” Not going to say where I overhead that, or from whom. Besides being funny, the sentiment here is useful. Even poetic, one could argue. Identity is fickle in any twenty-year-old, especially at a place with as many different social currencies as Stanford. In some groups, good grades are currency. In others, how much you work out is currency. As much as I hate the fact that this is true, there are definitely situations on campus where your looks are currency.
Transitioning between groups and situations requires more than changing your clothes or your tone of voice. It requires personality shape-shifting to meet competing and sometimes conflicting expectations and values. When you first meet your Math 51 study group you need brains, good grades and a TI-89 calculator. When you first meet your roommate’s boyfriend and his fraternity brothers, you need wit, good looks and a Corona in your hand. You wouldn’t want to tell the people who only know you as a calculator-wielding whiz that the batteries are borrowed from your vibrator.
Sometimes I feel like if I go out and party I’ll be pegged as a “social person,” and if I stay in and study I’ll be pegged as a “serious person.” I have a sense that students are placed into tidy categories with little room for flow between them. The dichotomies don’t stop at social vs. serious either. I feel like if I profess my love for dessert, I can’t also profess my love for healthy foods. If I like Walt Whitman’s poetry then I can’t decide to major in biology. If I’m a nerd, I can’t be cool. This kind of thinking is a trap, because the people I know and love best in the world are cool nerds who love their Melville and also love their Heisenberg. They are passionate about their studies and also love to go out dancing. They eat dessert. And they are not hypocrites because of it: they are whole people.
It’s a terrible thing to cut a personality into little pieces and evaluate each bit separately and critically. It misses the point. And it makes it impossible to live along a spectrum of being social, being alone, eating chocolate cake, reading the news and everything else that makes up your day-to-day. That kind of scrutinizing and labeling distorts the spectrum of human experience into two antagonistic extremes. The extremes are a fallacy in and of themselves, and negate the reality of a spectrum. Even if some extremes do exist on campus, they aren’t mutually exclusive, either.
This is why I love the example of the vibrator batteries. I don’t want you to get too caught up in the image of vibrator vs. calculator and simplify the analogy to mean sex life vs. school life. The poetic part of the analogy is the batteries. They work just the same in both situations. Zooming out, maybe there is some kind of social currency that works across your Math 51 study group and your friend’s fraternity brothers. Or across your friends from your freshman dorm and your new friends from junior year. I would argue that there are several. Generosity, goodwill, earnestness and levity for starters. Consistency of character, but also flexibility and openness to change.
Identity can shift from situation to situation, even moment to moment, and that gives you the wiggle room to interact with a multitude of different people and experience a rich variety of experiences. Maybe the fluctuating nature of identity is something not to criticize, but to celebrate. You have your own set of triple-A batteries that work across any situation you step into. So don’t sweat the categories, and be resourceful with your batteries.