Things fall apart. That which we take for granted—as fact, as certain—has the ability to change in an instant. Yeats knew this—as did Achebe and Didion. Even The Roots I hear. Situations we perceived as fixed—a gyre, an ancestral village, certain social mores—unravel before our eyes.
I first experienced the unraveling of things—of disintegration—when my parents decided to stop loving each other. Since then, I’ve chosen to leave before the disintegration arrives. I switch schools and move cities. I stop contacting friends and cheat on lovers. The end is always easier with a cut that is sharp than one that is dull, I suppose.
I most recently experienced disintegration the fall of my sophomore year when four envelopes were slipped beneath my door. I didn’t recognize it as such at the time—disintegration is not sudden but measured; a glass of split milk on a dining room table. But I should have seen the signs. I have made it my life to see the signs. The fact that I didn’t speaks to the particular brand of falling apart that I was dealing with. Am dealing with.
And so when I found myself, months later, standing outside on Mt. Auburn telling two girl friends they couldn’t come in because they weren’t on “the list,” or—another time—when I barely followed up with the friend who drunkenly confessed that she “might have” been sexually assaulted in the upstairs bathroom, I knew I was too late. The gyre had widened and I had failed to get out in time.
A few weeks after the first letter arrived under my door, I stood outside of the Cambridge Tennis Club in a suit, waiting in line. This was my third event, and I knew more or less what to expect. There would be catered food. There would be a book—pages long—in which you signed your name, email, and phone number. There would or would not be alcohol. There would be a speech by the club president and its board members. There would be lots of handshakes, introductions, and formations of circles. There was, in effect, a formula, and by the fourth club I had more or less figured it out. Except—of course—why.
Here’s a game: Ask someone why they are in a club, or punching a club, and wait for the moment in which what he or she is saying starts to sound rehearsed. Disingenuous. The moment will come; it came out of my own mouth two years ago. And so what lingered among every event was a distinct sense of purposelessness—of recklessness. The stilted conversations, the imbibing, the strangers, the opulence, the myth. Distractions from the hole in the center of it all: Why are we here, why are we doing this, why are we playing this game?
Here’s a scene to consider: a club courtyard, loud music, a boy proclaiming the girls to be “chunky.” Here are some more: asking a girl to thank her mom for a meal she didn’t cook. A boy detailing the professions of both his parents within two minutes of meeting him. A group of girls waiting to embrace blindfolded punches at the bottom of a staircase. A dinner with a friend in which he asks me to convince my roommate to join a club. A box of Cuban cigars. The smell of money. Girls who laugh without making a sound. Boys who will laugh at anything.
There is, of course, the “problem” of the thing. There is the allocation of social spaces on campus, of gender and class imbalances, of social stratification and sexual assault. But this has all been said and done, underlined and italicized, to the point in which to talk about the “problem” would feel habitual, like the swallowing of a pill or the reciting of a psalm.
I’m not interested in habituals. Nor am I interested in the altar of finger-pointing. What I am interested in is the spaces between gaps, the intellectual straddling of which we are all capable. For example: I had said, numerous times, that I didn’t think I would punch. For example: Guys who I hadn’t spoken to freshman year began speaking to me sophomore fall. For example: I smiled at strangers whose names I did not know. For example: At one point I felt jealously towards my closest friend. These are the moments in which I’m interested; the clear and sudden rendering of our invisible social code.
In psychology, “cognitive dissonance” is defined as the mental stress experienced by an individual when holding contradicting beliefs. To avoid this stress, alteration occurs. One belief is dropped, or changed, to fit the other. The aim is consistency and cohesion: total integration. One could view my disassociation from the Spee last fall as a study in cognitive dissonance. After joining, I began to participate in the commune of intellectual aerobics to which we all prescribed. Adages of “change from within” became second-hand. The words “progressive” and “diverse” were applied liberally to the club itself. There was in all discussions an attempt to gloss over the thing; to make excuses for what we all knew at our core was somehow a social aberration. An anomaly. Then, one day in December, I decided to stop making excuses and left. Alteration occurred.
That is cognitive dissonance.
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