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The seduction of a sweatshirt

LaurenDavis_FORWEB
LaurenDavis_FORWEB

“Until you conquer the fear of being an outsider, an outsider you will remain.”-C.S. Lewis, “The Inner Ring”

Gathering dust in my closet at home is a collection of sweatshirts that I can’t seem to bring myself to throw out. Each is a neatly folded badge of past attempts to find an identity: The trendy underground music aficionado, the peppy girls’ varsity swimmer, the slightly smug New England prep schooler. This pile has doubled during my years at Princeton, with additions from residential college sports teams, intelligent-sounding student groups and, most recently, the sorority I decided to drop.

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Beyond just nostalgic mementos, these shirts are trophies from exclusive inner circles I once longed to join, fought to gain entry into and then left behind. The story of seduction and striving, followed by dissatisfaction, has stayed the same, but I’ve fallen for it time and time again. My towering stack of emblazoned clothing represents this insatiable desire to be part of an inner circle — something I struggle to reconcile within myself and in others. Much has been written about this topic before, but it’s worth revisiting simply because it’s so fundamental to who we are as human beings.

When applying to selective prep schools and colleges, rushing a sorority, interviewing for student groups and bickering an eating club, I justified my decisions on the grounds of authentic desires for a quality education or deep friendships. But undeniably stirring below the surface of these rationalizations was a less admirable force: a longing to be accepted and feel the pride and hint of superiority at adding a shiny new badge to my chest for the world to see.

Speaking to London university students in 1944, C.S. Lewis elegantly and timelessly termed this allure of exclusivity as the desire for “The Inner Ring” — a phenomenon not inherently evil, but unavoidable. The notion of the Inner Ring, so unusually prominent at Princeton, where affiliations are stamped loudly onto our clothing and day-to-day reality, is something that we will face in a variety of forms throughout life.

No matter how I try to justify it, “exclusion is no accident; it is the essence” in any group that admits some but not others. As Lewis noted, “the passion for the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.” In my psyche an ongoing war rages between the reasonable critic, who sees objectively the inconsistencies in what I do, and the vulnerable, impulsive, emotional victim who craves to be soothed. It’s this tension between high-minded principles and everyday needs that leaves many of us so conflicted. While it’s unrealistic to think we can eradicate our basic tendencies, we can choose whether we want to let that yearning “to be ‘in’ ” to rule us, or to find some other, more consciously selected kind of motivation.

I can’t change my past decisions that have brought me to where I am now. I’m aware that I’ve been able, for whatever reason, to acquire many badges that others haven’t. It is a sad truth that “the circle cannot have from within the charm it had from the outside. By the very act of admitting you it has lost its magic.” As I change and outgrow these externally defined Inner Rings, I feel less of a need to advertise them so prominently or self-consciously, and I’ve started to see them more clearly for what they are.

With the good­ inevitably comes the bad — the sense of entitlement and cruel exclusivity that, even if not promoted by any particular individual, is still the net result of the group as a whole. Systems of selection and tradition, like Bicker, or the admission process to Princeton, can in turn act as a scapegoat for any emotional repercussions caused by rejecting others.

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The process of Fall Bicker left me feeling deeply and acutely guilty. What I said could contribute someone’s being relegated to the “outside,” even though I had absolutely no right to that power over their fate. We play mind games with ourselves to soothe our own fears; fears that, ironically, we all share, but seem unable to admit openly.

One day while wearing a particular T-shirt, I received friendly greetings from at least four people who wouldn’t have known me or acknowledged me, except that they too bore the same logo. Did our shared “belonging” shrink the gap between us and allow genuine friendliness, or was it purely social obligation which ultimately means little?To what extent should we fight the natural order to forge our own unique path, versus navigating the already trodden but much-populated road of convention? It can seem lonely to be out on the edge, but the more I solidify my own values, goals and passions, the less I long for the Inner Ring. Ironically, without even looking for it, I stumble upon a feeling of being “inside” based not upon externally drawn lines, but upon something else. Perhaps, this is a taste of something closer to real friendship.

I ordered an eating club sweatshirt two years ago when I joined, but it never arrived. I’m not sure I want to track it down.

Lauren Davis is a philosophy major from London, England. She can be reached at lhdavis@princeton.edu.

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