Eighteen years have passed since I was eighteen. Pausing to reflect on this milestone, I wondered what I would say to the younger me if given the opportunity. I share these thoughts with the hope that they will resonate with current freshmen and the eighteen year old freshmen inside many of us.
I would, of course, remind the 18-year-old me to actually go to class (even the 9:00 a.m. ones), to spend less time staying up late playing cards (Spades) with friends and more time doing my homework, to call home more often, to actually do laundry more than once a month, and to stay away from the punch at parties. But the one, less obvious, piece of advice I would offer to the younger, less bald and more in-shape version of me would be: Don't let your insecurities or your ego keep you from being your best self.
Recently, I traveled to a conference and heard bestselling author and scholar Karen Armstrong say to those gathered that "Spiritual and Religious Sages have long known that our egos very often keep us from being our best selves." Along with ego, I might add "insecurity," as it was these two twin chains that held me, and I imagine many other students, back.
Starting college is an insecure moment in one's life. We literally leave the security of home where we know we are loved. We leave the familiar space that was high school. Our friendships there were firmly established with years or trust-building adventures and misadventures. Our social status was built via the teams, clubs, and friendship circles we belonged to. We journeyed day by day with teachers who knew us by name.
In going to college we leave all of that for an insecure place where we are not known. I left a high school, where just months before I was captain of my varsity track team, to become a young freshman on the college team at the very bottom of the depth chart. I remember staring at the older triple jumpers who were jumping several feet beyond my best and realizing that these guys were grown men -- some of whom had full beards. I was still a teenager with a thin pirate-like mustache.
I came from a place where I was student council president of my high school only to find out that there were 800 other kids who were high school student council presidents in my freshman class.
After just one semester I would go from being a strong academic student with an "A-" average in high school to getting my first "D."
And on top of moving away from friends and family, I moved away from the unwavering support of trusted advisers and mentors. I went from having my high school principal tell me that he believed in me to my college adviser telling me that "as another Black kid from Baltimore, I'd probably fail out too." Thanks buddy.
The insecurity of freshman year can mess with you. It can make you question whether or not you can make it. The fear-filled voices can begin to get into your head. I remember locking my door and moving between yelling and crying in my dorm room as I heard the echoing comments that different people made.
"You only got in because you are Black.
They only accepted you because you're an athlete.
You took my spot there!
You'll probably fail out too."
If I could talk to my younger self, I would simply hug him. I would tell him that he is going to be just fine. That he should not and should never listen to the voices that cause fear and self-doubt.
I wish I had known then that a lot of us, in fact nearly every freshman, feels that insecurity in some way or another -- wondering whether they will succeed, whether people will like them, whether they can do the work. The most successful students walk through those fears knowing that they will take their losses: they might ride the bench for a year or two, they might lose a couple of elections before they win one, they might not have straight "A's" in college; but they also know that seasons change and the chilly autumn air eventually turns into a fruit bearing spring. No one is a freshman forever.
Looking back, I know that this was true for me. I made new friends -- and kept the old ones even over distance and time. I never did become the Olympic triple jumper or pro basketball player that I thought I'd be, but I've had other unimagined triumphs over the years. My GPA was never close to the "A-" it was in high school. Good thing my future employers, wife or kids never asked to see my grades. It was indeed hard for me to leave home, but my dorm and new friends became a home away from home for me with love and unwavering support that never replaced the love of family, but was enough to get me through.
But it's not just insecurity that hinders us, it is also our egos. I was stubborn and very proud. My ego kept me from getting a tutor when I needed one. It kept me from visiting the counseling center during some particularly low moments. All because I wanted to keep up the appearance of having it all together. How pitiful and how ironically stupid. Ego and the fear of letting people see the real us not only keeps us from being vulnerable, they keep us from being our true selves.
Our egos keep us in majors that we don't want to be in as opposed to studying that which tugs at our heart and passions. It diverts us into careers that will make others proud of us or jobs that will allow us to attain a certain type of lifestyle rather than allowing us to follow true callings. We appease the needs of our egos and our unhealed insecurities by transient titles and accomplishments.
Popular notions of the word "ego" have changed over time to be almost exclusively related to conceit and an inflated image of self-worth. At one point ego simply was our sense of personal identity or how we view and define our self. I prefer that definition. It's much simpler and unpolluted by insecurity. This is what I would try to communicate to my younger self -- that I should work to be myself.
Over the years I have learned that wrestling with ego and insecurity are life long endeavors and not simply the work of college freshman. Armstrong was right in that our religious and spiritual traditions have long taught this notion of laying down ourselves -- and our fears -- daily. By doing so we allow our best self to breathe, to thrive, to serve, to love and be loved. That is my prayer for all of those who will be starting college in the upcoming weeks and for all us in whatever season of life we are in -- be you.
The first version of this article ended with the last paragraph. But the events of the last several days in Ferguson, Missouri made this feel incomplete. There is something else that I would tell my eighteen-year-old freshman self. I'd tell him that he will survive. But there will be many others who look like him who will not. I'd tell him that he will soon learn the names of other young brothers like Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. They did not survive. But he would. And the burden/blessing that he will carry with him the rest of his life is that he would survive not for his own sake, but for the sake of future Amadous, Seans, Oscars, Trayvons, and Michaels. This is the last piece of advice I'd give my younger self and all freshmen -- that they must have a vision that extends beyond themselves. When one is in school just to get a job or just to get rich or just to have fun, school can get old. It can seem hollow and pointless. But when one has a vision and senses a calling to make this world better in whatever way they feel specifically called, freshmen year and all of college is seen as an important part of the journey to a future vocation of service.
This too is one of those lessons that transcends freshmen year. If we can get beyond ourselves, our egos, our insecurities, and our self prioritization so that we can see the bigger picture -- each day, each challenge, and each relationship can shine as not something to simply survive, but rather as an opportunity to serve, to love, and to bring about freedom. Here's to a great school year. Here's to a better world.