In his novel Paper Towns, John Green writes, “The longer I do my job, the more I realize that humans lack good mirrors. It’s so hard for anyone to show us how we look, and so hard for us to show anyone how we feel.” This quote has stayed with me since I first read the book almost four years ago (and the many rereads I have done since). The book explores the metaphor of other people being mirrors or windows to ourselves. We often struggle to see ourselves in other people and neglect to recognize that so many of us are facing similar dilemmas.
I recently went on 48 Hours, a retreat for freshmen at Boston College. We were separated into small groups with people most of us hadn’t met before. As we gathered to discuss our challenges we have faced this year, we soon found that each story, though different, had very similar tones. We all struggled to adjust to life away from the comforts of home, to make new friends, and to figure out what academic route is best for us.
Despite these similarities, many of us never thought that other people were going through the same things. We constantly view our peers from afar, wishing we could be as charismatic or well-dressed as they are. We neglected to consider the possibility that they themselves hadn’t yet figured things out either. In many ways, this is due to our difficulty—as Green says—to admit our own complicated feelings, and causes us each to put up our facades for others to envy.
Although a bit frightening and awkward at first, each member soon started to share the hidden parts of their lives. We try so hard to keep up the appearance of having everything together, but by being vulnerable, the feeling of letting that facade go can empower us more than anything else. By pushing away our problems, our wounds are getting worse rather than healing.
In high school, teens are constantly trying new things to figure out who they are. They battle between the need to fit in and desire to stand out—stereotypes are the rule of the land. Often, these characteristics seem comforting. By conforming to one way of being, the internal question of “Who am I?” is quieted. But, we are never satisfied. No matter how much we try, or how much it might seem so, no one is the perfect example of any of the many high school stereotypes.
In college, we start from scratch. While there are undoubtedly many stereotypes at universities as well, we often begin to find ourselves in parts of the attempted personas from high school that did feel right. The way we continue to perceive others, however, shows our habit of thinking with these stereotypes. During freshman year in particular, we often view others through a lens of insecurity. When we see someone sitting with many people at lunch, we may begin to tear ourselves down and wonder why we don’t have as many friends—we neglect to consider that not everything is what it seems to be. We also forget that some aspect of one’s life that may be the most visible is not the only part of them. The insecurities in certain areas of our life often lead us to have tunnel vision. We take for granted the other things in our lives that we have figured out. In Paper Towns, Green expresses this idea when Q, the protagonist, asks, “Isn’t it also that on some fundamental level we find it difficult to understand that other people are human beings in the same way that we are? We idealize them as gods or dismiss them as animals.” We consistently see people only in comparison to ourselves.
People are more complex than we can imagine: We each contain layers that obscure our understanding of the layers within others. Experiences like 48 Hours encourage us to break through the barriers, to try and find the person behind our perceptions—escaping our own mind is the only way to understand others. As Green writes, “It is easy to forget how full the world is of people, full to bursting, and each of them imaginable and consistently misimagined.”
Featured Graphic by Nicole Chan / Graphics Editor