Opinion | Narrativizing your Stanford

Opinion by Zora Ilunga-Reed
March 7, 2021, 7:43 p.m.

On a walk the other day, I turned a corner and bumped into my past self. With Fiona Apple’s “Ladies” from her 2020 album “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” in my earbuds, I was suddenly struck by the fact that it’s been a year since I moved back home due to COVID. A year of job applications, essays, presentations and readings, it had flown by on wings of productivity, hurtling toward deadlines and due dates. The events of the past year spread out before me, an absurd chronicle. Yet there was no theme, no structure, no glue between the disparate days. I could only sort the pieces in their respective quarters, assign them a season and a week.  

A 2018 article from the Grind describes the “time warp” effect of Stanford’s quarter system. The article comedically details the effects of week-to-week living and the notorious, seemingly endless midterm season. It’s a fun read, but it brings to the surface the temporal effect of such an abbreviated academic term. Aside from the stress it induces, the quarter system also has an impact on the way its participants perceive time. As time flies from Week 1 to Week 8, we lose the opportunity to look back and reconstitute the many intervening events into a cohesive narrative. Additionally, as the author of this article notes, the turnover from quarter to quarter means there is the constant approach of a “fresh start,” which she views as an asset. But with each 10-week tabula rasa comes the erasure of the previous one. How can we find a sense of cohesion in our lives if our academic time is marked by tri-monthly regeneration and replacement?

Last week, Nicholas Midler published a column in which he, too, reflected on the past year. He spoke to the potential value of a year off campus: When we’re away, we get a break from Stanford’s optimization-centric, fast-paced, quarter-driven culture. His column left me wondering: Could this year away also offer an opportunity for us to bring together the various pieces of our past lives into a more cohesive narrative? When we quarter-system students exist off campus in a world that operates on more traditional units of time, are we afforded a new possibility to narrativize our lives?

But why do we even need to construct or uncover narratives in our lives? I’ve tried and failed to come up with my own strong answer to this question. All I can really say is that, when I ran into last year’s events floating in time, I felt a strong urge to bring them together into a life story. Perhaps this is just an effect of a childhood obsession with stories. Or perhaps there’s something more to it. If we live in a chronicle, situated at the end of an ordered list of past events, it’s difficult to see the broader meanings or the themes that have guided us throughout existence, that have made it not merely existence but life.

Twentieth-century French philosopher Paul Ricoeur agrees: After studying time and narrative extensively, he realized the deep value of narrative identity. As David Pellauer and Bernard Dauenhauer write, Ricoeur thought that “personal identity in every case can be considered in terms of a narrative identity: what story does a person tell about his or her life, or what story do others tell about it?” Our identities are, at least partially, constituted by the stories we have lived. The particular narratives of our lives make each of us unique instances of humanity. As Zadie Smith wrote in “White Teeth,” “In the end, your past is not my past and your truth is not my truth and your solution is not my solution.”

When we narrativize our lives not only do we build a cohesive identity and aid our self-understanding, but we also become more intelligible to our peers and community writ large. Consider Faces, a New Student Orientation program in which a handful of upperclassmen present a component of their life stories to incoming frosh and transfers. The stories I heard that afternoon in Bing have stuck with me through the years: They offered me a window into the vast diversity of Stanford’s student body and each person’s unique experiences.

For political philosopher Adriana Cavarero, the very telling of a life story must be in the hands of a third-party, as with blind Teiresias and Ulysses. As we move through life, our scope is limited: “The revelatory power of action expires in the moment of its occurring, the story conserves the identity of the hero in time — and every so often for all time — if it has the fortune of finding a great narrator.” In the absence of an ancient wise man to tell our stories, though, can we still find a way to construct and tell our life narratives and, by proxy, discover and share our identities?

I’m inclined to think so, even though the quarter system’s breakneck pace hampers this necessarily slow and reflective process. Whether it’s journaling, coloring, meditating or taking an afternoon walk to listen to Fiona Apple, many Stanford students have found and documented their respective mindful hobbies. Perhaps life-narrativization wasn’t their expressed goal, but at least the very engagement in such meditative activities creates fertile ground for the seeds of a life narrative to grow and flourish. My walks up and down the island of Manhattan have served as opportunities for me both to destress and to reflect on my life chronicle, to mold it, with hands guided by hindsight, into a whole more beautiful and meaningful than the sum of its parts.

As this whirlwind of a quarter draws to a close, I’ve had to stop myself from slipping into preparatory anxiety for the one to come. The last eight weeks do not feel cohesive; I can’t find a narrative thread to tie up loose ends. Especially with the lack of a real break between winter and spring quarters this year, it is incredibly difficult to find a spare couple of hours for life narrativizing. But, perhaps naively, I’m hopeful as the days get longer and the seasons change. Spring, after all, is the time of new growth and tax payments: a budding future and a withering past. That is to say, between deadlines, I am looking out for those little moments in which I can throw on some shoes, put on my headphones and reflect on the shape of my story so far.

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Zora Ilunga-Reed is a columnist and a junior studying Philosophy & Literature. A native New Yorker, she was a Copy Editor, Desk Editor and Staff Writer in volumes past. Read her column if you want to hear her thoughts on the woes of humanities students, tech culture and more.

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