“Remember who you are.”
My parents told me this before sending me off to my first semester at the University of Alabama. It was more than just a cliché. For them, it was a way of reminding me that they raised me a certain way, and that they expected me to honor that throughout my tenure here.
I always thought it was a bit paradoxical. They were sending me to college to learn, grow, and, presumably, change. Yet they expected me, at my core, to remain the same young man they had raised. I knew that they wanted me to grow up, but I used to think they also wanted me to remain the child they’d nurtured into early adulthood.
But what if I am unchanged? What if their advice was less a reminder and more a prophecy? Can we truly change? Does growing up even necessitate change?
I met a wonderful young man during my sophomore year who I came to believe had changed radically by choice. I met him as a clean-cut, professional, extroverted leader, intelligent and forthright in his actions. He dressed as though going to work in a real job on a daily basis. He constantly helped others in any way he could and was tirelessly involved with his peers. From what I knew of him, he was the model of professionalism that many at the university strive to achieve.
The previous year, and indeed much of his teenage life, he had been a slacker. Long hair, grunge outfits, questionable hobbies, lackluster grades. There’s nothing particularly wrong with any of that, but what made it so hilarious to me was how rapidly and drastically he had changed. What’s more, he had decided to make those changes. At a conscious level, he had looked at himself in the mirror and said, “I must be different.”
That’s something I think we all wish we could do. To wake up tomorrow morning and say, “Today, I become the person I’ve always wanted to be.” I know I would have given nearly anything to gain that superpower early in my college career.
I’ve seen similar, though less sudden, changes occur in close friends. They’ve morphed slowly into the people they desired to be. My best friend, whom I consider a brother, has forged himself into the closest attainable approximation of the person he always wanted to be. Through determination and willingness to work hard, he has broadened his skillsets and built on strong foundations.
Despite that, though, he’s still the same kid I knew in high school. At heart, he hasn’t truly changed. That’s a good thing, because the person he has always been is one of upstanding character, but it’s nonetheless true that he has not changed at the most basic level.
What has changed is his willingness to let go of smaller worries. In previous years, he used to agonize, even obsess, over the minutest details that angered him. That has faded significantly as he’s grown wiser. In this way, I think his growth highlights the truth of growing up: growing up is learning how to let go and move on.
I’ve watched another friend experience similar change, but I’ve seen him revert to his former self as well, as recently as the past year. He has always been a good person, but his immaturity rears its ugly head on many occasions. It shows no signs of dissipating, despite it virtually disappearing during our sophomore and junior years.
I think the college environment has a lot to do with that reversion. Whereas “real life” typically involves a great deal of responsibility, college offers freedom with relatively little immediate accountability. Everything around us is temporary, and, at a subconscious level, we are constantly aware of it. Next year, someone new, a stranger, will be sleeping on your mattress or bed frame in your apartment. Many of us live out of suitcases when we go back home, and some of us split our time so much between residences while we’re here that it becomes impossible to say where “home” truly is.
College lacks permanence. In a way, that makes us all ghosts, floating through a temporary life, making lasting memories knowing that any moment could be the last we spend with these certain people, because, eventually, we will all go our separate ways. Can ghosts really change?
I ran into the clean-cut professional the other day. He had grown his hair out and abandoned his suit in favor of a t-shirt. I’m sure he’s still more determined and active than he was when he enrolled, but his “changes” didn’t set in. They weren’t permanent. Instead, he let go of his need to change and moved on, accepting himself. Accepting who he was to begin with.
He remembered who he was.
Josh Miller is a senior majoring in English and political science.