Our theme for the month of November is “firsts.”
I’ve been thinking about firsts lately, and not just because that’s our theme this month. It’s a natural place for one’s thoughts to land when one has just graduated college and beginnings are ubiquitous, but come with far less fanfare.
It all takes me back to the most fanfared beginning I’ve experienced in my life thus far—Calvin’s orientation. What stands out to me from orientation is how much forced emotional intimacy I experienced over such a short amount of time through various get-to-know-you exercises, and how close I came to giving up on Calvin altogether.
I understand what’s supposed to be good about get-to-know-you games. They are more revealing than simply having everyone recite name, major, and hometown. They appeal to our childish side, allowing people to let go of social anxiety, and they foster interpersonal bonds by forcing people to be vulnerable, right away, with people they’ve never met. At least, that’s what I gather they’re designed to do.
Get-to-know-you games are actually, however, just the first in a string of social tests that I’m guaranteed to fail. If there is a personalized hell custom-made for each of us, I’m convinced I will be forced to play get-to-know-you games constantly in mine. To me they’ve always just been one more way for the funny, confident kids to establish their dominance early on, while kids like me try not to throw up out of nervousness and inevitably get identified as the awkward, socially-unaware ones.
I think that it’s telling that in the group of people with whom I played the most get-to-know-you games I’ve ever played over the shortest span of time, the highest concentration of supposedly friendship-building activities, I made the fewest friends. That is to say, none.
Our orientation group played them all: the M&M game, where you answer color-coded questions based on which color M&Ms you draw in a small handful (hint from a veteran: just eat the M&Ms of whatever color question you don’t want to answer, no one is watching you); two truths and a lie, a classic and an immediate litmus test for who’s confident and who’s not; the alliterative adjective one, where you come up with a supposedly catchy name using your first initial; and where do you stand, a game that turns the room into a spectrum, one end agree, one end disagree, and then as controversial topics are tossed out, you place yourself somewhere on the spectrum and see where everyone else falls. A fun way to literally visualize whether you’re in with the cool kids or not!
Sarcasm aside. Orientation was also the first time I was asked to share my “river tooth” with my peers. I had thought about river teeth a lot prior to Quest; I had read the David James Duncan essay of that name, and taken to heart its idea, that there are certain experiences and people that are life-defining. It was obvious to me which experience has changed me the most—the one that was most painful to me, the one I never talked about. Could I be vulnerable with complete strangers for the first time in my life? What would it do for me? Maybe it would break some invisible barrier that had been holding back a secret, socially-confident, emotionally-open Carolyn that the world had never known. If I told them, I might be transformed. This was what college was all about. These were the kinds of bold steps and self-reinventions I read about in college promotional brochures. I would never know until I tried.
So I tried. I told my small group that my river tooth was my mother—and that her death was the moment that changed me the most.
Turns out, the others in my group had had their lives changed, too. One had her life-path take a sharp turn when she didn’t make the volleyball team. Another said she would never be the same after she traveled internationally for the first time, to Italy. A third had gone on a mission trip to Chicago that was, apparently, the most life-defining experience in his eighteen years of life. Everyone looked uncomfortable while I talked, but then visibly set themselves at ease as they shared experiences that required no emotional depth whatsoever.
I went back to my dorm room and cried.
I’ve been meditating on what relationships are made of lately, as longtime friends move away and new friendships materialize. A shared experience, a common interest—any point of connection can bring people together, as long as there is follow-up and follow-through.
What I hear a lot about right now, though, is vulnerability as the source of relationship. The New York Times’s Modern Love series published a psychologist’s “36 Questions That Lead To Love,” a set of questions two people can ask one another to deepen their emotional intimacy. Vulnerability brings us together. We hear this message everywhere, and, with some caveats, I think there is truth to the hype—vulnerability can be powerful and meaningful.
Get-to-know-you games take this as their premise: if you break down the initial barriers of social formality, you can jump right into relationship with each other.
I wonder, though, if we haven’t forgotten what vulnerability actually means: exposure to harm, physical or emotional. I wonder if we’ve glorified vulnerability, made being vulnerable a necessity (especially in educational spaces, like Calvin) before the relationships have formed that would warrant vulnerability. We’re constantly asked to share, share, share. What happens if we give, and no one receives? If we’re pressured to give what we’re not ready to?
I think about how, when people of different races and sexualities from me are called upon (implicitly, if not explicitly) to share their experiences, I often benefit from their vulnerability. Now, I wonder if it always benefits them to be vulnerable, or if vulnerability can be parasitic, if I’ve ever built a self-image of care and compassion on top of someone else’s pain.
I remember how deeply lonely those first two months at Calvin were, and I wonder if orientation has gotten something about vulnerability wrong. Vulnerability without purpose, without intention, is just its textbook definition, nothing more: it’s an exposure, and usually a painful one. I wonder if we shouldn’t be reminded of that more often.