We are large, we contain multitudes

Feb. 13, 2017, 6:30 a.m.

I collect other people’s words. There’s something unbelievably powerful about reading something somebody else has said and feeling the chills rush up my spine as I realize it’s a perfect way of describing an experience I’ve had, or simply a beautifully brilliant compilation of words put together in exactly the right way.

My dorm room is littered with sticky notes slapped on my desk and walls, with phrases from books or articles that have struck me as particularly inspiring. One of the more commonly-known quotes that adorns my walls is from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”:

“Do I contradict myself? / Very well then, I contradict myself. / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”

This quote, to me, has always been a beautiful way of describing the complexity that is human nature — the fact that we don’t exist in dichotomies, that we’re all infinitely complicated compilations of many different and sometimes conflicting thoughts and beliefs.

While I love this quote, its application in real life is difficult. Contradictions within ourselves are not usually viewed in a positive light: We’re supposed to have strong opinions and act in a consistent way most of the time. But one of the most powerful things we can do is acknowledge the fact that as human beings, we act and think in different ways in different contexts, and that’s actually okay and maybe even good.

One example of this contradiction is my introversion in some contexts and not in others. In classroom settings, I’m fairly quiet, and speak pretty infrequently. In fact, in many larger group settings, I’m never the one to speak loudest or try to be heard. But in other contexts, I can be extremely vocal, giddy and loud.

While this perhaps doesn’t seem that unusual (everyone feels different degrees of comfort in different settings), this tendency to speak and act in such drastically different contexts has actually been a large source of stress for me. In high school, teachers would comment that I should learn to share my thoughts more often with my peers, speak up more in discussion settings. And the frustrating thing for me was that I knew I was capable of doing so — when classes broke into smaller groups to discuss ideas, I was able to be a large contributor to the small-group discussions. It frustrated me to no end that for some reason, I was able to talk in one setting, and not the next.

When my best friend left for college (about a month before me, thanks to Stanford’s quarter system) I remember driving away from her house for the last time and feeling unbelievably confused about my emotional state. I was incredibly sad to see her leave, to know that I would soon be 3,000 miles away from one of the people I loved most in this world, but I also felt a swelling in my chest as I thought about how much love and joy I’d shared with her.

I thought about ice skating on chilly nights, linking arms as we walked to our favorite frozen yogurt place and laughing at random absurdities, about our beach days and long chats in warm cars as the nighttime slowly filled the outside world with darkness. And as all of these moments flashed through my mind, I felt unbelievably happy and grateful, despite the pain of knowing I wouldn’t see her for three or four months.

When my grandfather died, I felt unbelievably heartbroken, but I also felt extremely connected to my immediate family and extraordinarily grateful that he’d gotten to live as long and healthy a life as he did. In fact, when I think back on a lot of the most poignant moments of my life, they’ve been moments like this, where I didn’t feel one emotion.

I wasn’t happy or sad, I was a complicated combination of many different and equally strong emotions. And this can be extremely confusing and sometimes frustrating, because we like to assign words to our emotional states: “I’m sad,” or “I’m happy,” or “I’m angry.” But it’s more accurate, in my experience, to say, “I’m happy, and I’m sad and I’m angry, and that’s okay.”

We must be more forgiving with ourselves. Yes, it’s important to recognize instances where our contradictions can be teaching opportunities (for me, this means working to try to speak more in classes), but it’s also important to realize that we are allowed to act differently at different times and even believe different things at different times. Feeling many different things at the same time, while frustrating, is also a beautifully, uniquely human phenomenon.

We all contain multitudes, and sometimes, what we’re feeling can’t be adequately described with emotional labels like “happy” and “sad.” One of my favorite words in the English language is “ineffable”: basically, the idea that something is too great to be described in words. Perhaps sometimes human sensation and behavior is simply “ineffable”: We are large, we contain multitudes, and the contradictions in ourselves can be one of the most poignant parts of the human experience.


Contact Julie Plummer at jplummer ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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