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Nobody Cares/Everybody Cares

meerajay's picture


Nobody Cares/Everybody Cares

            My brain is pounding into my ears as I trek to my next meeting, hammering the tune of stress headache into my head. It is a rhythm that I am familiar with – once it begins, not even the strongest of Advil liquid-gels will hold off its attack. It is only the second week of classes, but my usual spirited fast-walk has already turned into a trudging gait that betrays my exhaustion. My backpack weighs heavily on my spine, so I shrug it off and sit down at a wooden bench made warm by the dying sun, looking out into the trees in the distance. My mind, as is its nature, will not let me rest even as my body does, promptly running an ongoing script of to-do lists and meetings through my head. I open up a notebook to write things down before I forget them… and then give up, closing my eyes to face the last fading rays, soaking up the warmth.

            “Hi! How’re you?” a voice cuts through my contemplation. A smiling acquaintance has stepped out of the nearest building and is walking rapidly past me. Automatically, a wide smile affixes itself to my face as I turn to face her. “I’m doing good! You?” I chirp. She keeps up her brisk walk, probably to her own next obligation “Great, thanks!” I sigh, moment interrupted.

When Zadie Smith visited Bryn Mawr my freshman year, she turned to us and made a passionate claim, “I swear it, you’ll never be as smart again in your life as you are now, at this moment.” She was talking about the fleeting nature of college life, all of us being drunk with our youth and our own cleverness. We have a place for it all to spill out, people to help us collect our own “brilliant” thoughts and proclaim their brilliance. But oftentimes, the Bryn Mawr community feels silencing, especially in casual, daily interactions. Instead of honesty when dealing with personal and academic stress, there is an aesthetic, affected performance of either joy or immense strain; there is never an in-between. This college is self-selecting; a tiny, unique environment where the vast majority of everyone is deeply committed and passionate about something, a something that is not necessarily academics. We all place pressure onto ourselves to give something worthwhile back to society, whether that means we are the next Judith Butlers or Frida Kahlos. Our need to constantly perform our own overachievement for the community makes it so that everyone is overburdened with commitments, struggling to stay afloat in this high-pressure academic and social environment. And yet, for the most part, we are silent in our daily interactions about how much our rushed, overscheduled lives are burdening us. At Bryn Mawr, "many of us are mad at school," because the vast majority of us internalize stress due to our constant commitments. But even worse, we trivialize our interactions with each other by proclaiming to as many people as we can that we're "doing great, how about you?" It is only too often that I run into an acquaintance or friend who will immediately ask how I am while in a rush to get somewhere else, clearly not expecting an honest answer. What else do I respond with but the polite, “Good, how are you?” only for them to proclaim how great they are doing, as well. This performance, where we are forced to bend the truth, perpetuates all of our silencing in a vicious cycle, and makes us believe that our voices do not deserve to be heard by our peers unless we are saying something considered productive or academic. We are silenced and left alone to wallow in our own self-created struggles with stress, not realizing that the most of us are going through the same thing.  

            I brought this up with a friend, a student here who is from India by nationality, having lived there for several years. She expressed her frustration with the whole performance, saying that she had recently been simply waving and smiling at people she runs into, and if they ask her how she is, replying with a simple “fine, thank you.” It had become frustrating for others, she said, when she responded this way, and people had begun to think that this was rude. “But in India,” she said, “no one asks anyone how they’re doing together. Because no one fucking cares! No, actually, everyone cares – that’s why we can treat our friends like people, and sit down and have a full conversation with them if they want to tell us something great that happened to them, or why they’re feeling down! There’s none of this fake-polite bullshit.” In Mad at School, Margaret Price argues, through Catherine Prendergast, “Rhetoricity is…the ability to be received as a valid human subject” (26). By denying the space to express our own personal state of mind, or even worse, lying about our states of mind, we are not letting our peers perceive our humanity. In collectivist cultures like India, there is an emphasis on respect to elders, but among peers there is far less performance. This culture of politeness, of performing carefree to spare others, is a Western ideology of individuality.

This idea of “madness” at school could translate further than stress into the realm of neurodivergence; a number of people on this campus suffer from mental illness but are terrified to seek out support and are silenced because they believe that this is how they should be feeling at school. The academic industrial complex is silencing of any divergent identities, because, as Price states, “[there is a] desire to protect academic discourse as a ‘rational’ realm, a place where emotion does not intrude” (33). Bryn Mawr students have taken the performance of academic setting even further, believing that they have to exude stability and reason at all times. Mental illness has fused into their cores because of this silencing, causing them to believe that this is their only possible way of existence.

Part of it is almost a skewed idea of feminism - we want to put on a brave face in public even if it is fake, because we want to prove to each other and to ourselves that we are invincible. But this is just another way that the cycle of silence is perpetuated. I know that my brand of feminism does not mean putting on a performance, but I still catch myself sounding fake and strange with my “how are yous”. It has become habit that is difficult to break, even knowing how silencing it feels.



mnt's picture

While reading your post, I was reminded of Carter's claim, "people who have experienced trauma are culturally expected to turn their pain into a narrative of inspiration for others". This, to me, seems like an extension of your arguement. Why must we constantly mask anything that society deems as less than perfect?

Anne Dalke's picture

This paper was a deflection from the question of silencing that occurs "between" or "among" intersectional identities.

It describes the vicious cycle we perpetuate by staying silent about how we really feel.

How can you step off from this shape a claim? How can you prove that it's happening...? What are the larger structures that contribute to it...?

Look @ my essay On Being Transminded?

The question that you want to focus on is why we do it? Your answers could be psychological, cultural, gendered...? What statistics could you gather from Admissions about who is admitted here...?

What about the irony of "self-care"? Is it class-based?