Let’s consider a personal focus that is especially prevalent at Princeton: the identity of achievement. There are clearly a number of positive reasons to pursue achievements: Success in academics, for instance, can open up exciting career opportunities, produce ideas that benefit society and lead to financial security. Similarly, achievement in sports can hone leadership skills and achievement in social circles can lead to exciting new friendships.
On the other hand, achievement can lead us to put our very self-worth in our inevitably fickle ability to accomplish it. For instance, if you are protecting a straight-A transcript and you love the fact that you work insanely hard and everyone knows it, what happens when you fail a test? Or what if your social life revolves around getting into a particular bicker club, and then you get hosed? Even if you do get the “A” or successfully bicker the club, isn’t the anxiety surrounding those achievements unpleasant at best and downright oppressive at worst?
The blessing and the curse of Princeton can be found in precisely the people, opportunities and academic resources that make the Orange Bubble so special. Princeton is a blessing because the wealth of possibilities it opens up can be harnessed for so much good when pursued in a healthy way. Princeton is a curse because this very wealth can lead to an overwhelming pressure to perform that actually stifles the positive creativity and impact we have in the world.
At a place like Princeton, your grade point average or social status can quickly become a sort of god in the sense that it dictates your schedule, aspirations and — yes — identity. In my opinion, administrators, parents, faculty and students themselves can all be blamed for pushing Princeton students to over-realize the value of excelling. If excellence is your foundation, then a failed sports season, rejection to med school or a stock market crash can be devastating: Storms like these batter and drown a life built on the fair weather identity of achievement.
But maybe you don’t put your identity in the achievement surrounding school, sports, broad social circles or jobs. Maybe you invest your hope in relationships with close friends and family who love you regardless of your capacity to be “successful.” After all, a network of strong personal relationships can provide tremendous satisfaction as well as a buffer against all manners of hardships. The only problem with an identity built on others is that people themselves have an intransigent bent toward screwing up or letting you down. An identity based on relationships can be shattered by the boyfriend who breaks up with you, the dad who leaves you when you’re still a kid or the friend who isn’t available when you need her the most. If another person is the foundation you rest on and that foundation is pulled out from under you, then what remains to hold you up?
So let me ask you: Where is your identity? Is it in the word “Princeton” stitched across the gear you bought Freshman Week? Is it in the high-paying job you earned at a top investment bank, consulting company or software firm? What about your personality, sexuality, graduate program, best friends?
I don’t mean to spread gloom and doom about how all the potentially good things in life can go awry. Rather, I want to enjoy all the wonderful aspects of life without allowing my self-confidence, contentment or outlook to rise and fall with people or ideals that are unreliable.
Where then do I find my own identity? I identify with someone whom I consider to be true, trustworthy, satisfying and enduring. My identity is built on a savior, a God who has been faithful to me even when I’ve been unfaithful to him. I know that my God will love and protect me without regard for the success or lack thereof that end up characterizing my life. And I’m grateful to him for day-by-day joy, motivation and meaning as well as a long-term constancy that steadies me when my desires drag me this way and that.
This identity of mine, this Jesus Christ, is a solid foundation that will not waver, no matter the rain and the floods and the wind that come.
Dave Kurz is a 2012 graduate from Maryland. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.