Recently, Carleton hired a set of photographers to spend time on campus visually capturing the spirit of the student body. This work was displayed as Vantage Points and Vantage Points II displayed in the campus art gallery. As an alum living 755 miles away, I didn’t get a chance to see the commissioned works first hand. However, when the Carleton College 2008 Calendar showed up, I left it sitting on the kitchen table. My 10-year-old daughter took one look at the cover picture and said, “why would they put THAT picture on the cover? The girl looks mad or unhappy or something. Why wouldn’t they put a picture of somebody smiling on the cover?” As with most things my daughters say, I took this to heart. I looked through the 12 months and found only two images of smiling students: guys hanging out in a hot tub, no smiles, a man chatting with a nearly naked woman wrapped in a towel in the hallway, no smiles, a group of students playing ice croquet on the bald spot, no smiles.
I looked at all these faces, all this body language, and I realized things have not changed much in the 23 years since I graduated. I was struck by this since my resolution for self improvement this year involved learning to lighten up. I’ve been struggling with this my whole life and have realized at the age of 46 that it’s time to get serious about joie de vivre. I think the typical Carleton student is so afraid of not meeting their own high expectations that they miss out on a central part of the human experience. We laugh at the big party school atmosphere – thinking those students are wasting their time. We fool ourselves into thinking that we must work hard and play hard. Everything is hard. And the school plays into this myth. They make us feel proud of ourselves for being so serious, so accomplished, so considered in our self existence.
I write to you hoping I might open your eyes to the mistake of the imbalance in this course. Work now to dissect the elements necessary for a full experience of the joy of life. Start to solve this problem now. Don’t wait until you’re 40, have made it to partner in your law firm, or tenure in your faculty position, or attending physician in cardio-thoracic transplant surgery. By then it’s nearly too late. Not only will the task require herculean efforts to accomplish, but you will also realize that you’ve let nearly 1⁄2 your time on the planet go by without allowing yourself to be truly wholly human. I don’t pretend to have the magic bullet that will let you find your way to this level of living. But I am quite certain that the issue is worth tackling. Smile at a girl. Smirk at a boy. Laugh at the camera that tries to get you to look serious when your heart is filled with the glee of life. And if, upon examination, you find your heart not filled with glee, use your mind to change your way. Do not settle for less than being obviously happy. For you, making the world a better place is likely to be a much easier task than figuring out how to do it with a smile on your face.
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