By Eric Steinbrook
Volume XXXVI, Issue 3, December 13, 2013
It took me 63 days and 4000 miles on a bicycle, followed by two months of studying in Ireland, to realize what it was that had been staring me in the face ever since I arrived at Amherst. Before I left San Francisco back in June, I realized that I actually had to meet the lofty goals I had set, which were to cycle from San Francisco to Boston and raise $10,000 for the global health non-profit organization Partners In Health. I had trained relentlessly in the gym and on my bike, and I had reached out to everyone I knew, including friends, family, Amherst alumni, and complete strangers, to help me raise money. I, like almost every Amherst student I’ve met, knew how to work hard to accomplish my goals. What I had yet to wrap my mind around, however, was the realization that the hardest part of my journey would come after I had already arrived in Boston and raised $10,000.
When my voyage was over, and I wanted to tell friends and family what I’d done, I struggled to come up with a single narrative for my trip. I wanted that narrative to truthfully represent my experience and what it meant to me, all of the nine weeks of dirt, exhaustion, laughter, and emotion that made it so special. But it was challenging to distill my experience into a few words that I could tell a friend. I could tell people about the HIV-positive cyclist who brought me to tears with his stories or the chain-smoking, unabashedly racist veteran of the Vietnam and Korean wars that lived life more fully than anyone I have ever met, or even the exceptional flatulence that I had after a case of Panda Express-induced food poisoning.
An unfortunate consequence of the little stories I told is that they soon started to change the way that I thought about my journey. Acting like a feedback loop, the handful of stories that I told caused my memory of the open road to change a rather disturbing amount. For instance, in order to satisfy my idea that a narrative should make my listeners laugh, I added a good amount of self-effacing humor into my stories. I liked to draw attention to how much of a romantic fool I was at the start of my journey and talk about the (admittedly hilarious) instances of chafing, flatulence, and angry drivers in order to elicit a few smiles. The problem with telling stories to an audience is that the storyteller can easily mistake his story for an actual memory. The smallest details, which were once the most personally meaningful parts of the story, get crossed out with red ink and replaced with a polished piece fit for public consumption. Oblivious to the difference, the storyteller blunders on. I’ve allowed my silly stories to spiral out of control for the past two months, and doing so has changed my own relationship to those events.
I’ve resolved to reclaim my narrative and make it personal again. My realization—the one that I previously described as “staring me in the face ever since I arrived at Amherst”—was that I have lately been giving my audience far too much control over my personal stories and narratives. For example, I think that all but the most self-assured students at Amherst can relate to the fear that I had during my first and second years here: The admissions office made a terrible mistake, and some other Eric Steinbrook is still sitting at his kitchen table wondering why his admissions decision had never arrived. I’ve met other Lord Jeffs who I thought were far more articulate in the classroom, adept on the athletic fields, and suave in the socials than I ever thought I could be. It’s easy to think less of ourselves in the Amherst bubble, and I know that I’m not the only one who feels some sort of Schadenfreude when I hear about my superhuman peers’ occasional struggles. It’s a natural transition from self-doubt to self-deprecating stories.
But, by drawing attention to our faults and voicing concerns that we don’t deserve to be at Amherst, we fall into the same storytellers’ dilemma that I fell into after my bicycle trip. Self-deprecating humor leads to a self-deprecating interpretation of the events unfolding around you. Success becomes a fluke and failure a friend. I’m certainly not proposing something stupid like banning self-effacing humor from casual usage or walking around all day complimenting ourselves in order to grow our egos. Instead, we should try our best to keep our personal aspirations alive and strong in the face of the cynical, ironic public narrative that we like to share with friends.
In San Francisco, just before I set out for Boston this summer, I started to dream about what life would be like after I finished my trip. I expected that, after spending eight hours on my bicycle every day for 63 days and traversing the diverse social landscape of America, I would see the world differently. I imagined people lounging on street corners in small Nebraskan towns, and revving the engine of chainsaws in the forests of western Pennsylvania. All of them, I thought, were waiting to share some sage advice about happiness or their idea of how to lead a good life, and I couldn’t wait to find these people.
Have you ever seen that picture of Walt Whitman where he stands with his head cocked to the side, hand on his hip, and eyebrows raised, as he stares straight out of the page as if to say, “Yeah, I’m not dressed up at all and I probably haven’t showered in a few days, but there’s no way that you’re smarter than me”? Take a look at that picture. Know that, back in foggy San Francisco, I wanted to be that portrait. I not only wanted to understand more about the diverse groups of people who call themselves Americans but also distill their experiences into some sort of lesson. My goal was to develop a personal narrative of the American people, and I wanted to roll through Amherst in late August, rejuvenated, a modern day Whitman swaggering through life.
That’s the start of my new personal narrative. You don’t get to hear all of it and hey, I may not be Walt Whitman yet, but at least I know that I have swagger.