Many people, including myself, define themselves differently after the past year. As things return to normal, I can only wonder how to move forward. A few months ago on TikTok, there was a trend where creators would lip-sync to an audio of Dr. Umar Johnson asking, “What happened to the original plot of the movie?” while adding text over their videos that described how their life trajectory changed entirely due to the pandemic. This trend was popular because it was relatable — different relationships, gender identities and sexual orientations, academic interests, living situations and much more revealed themselves to many over the course of the lockdown, seemingly out of left field.
Defining oneself has always been essential. As humans, especially ones finding our place in the world, it feels integral to know our identities and how they fit into society. You need to have an elevator pitch about yourself because when an interviewer, a club application or a person at a party says, “Tell me about yourself!” you need something to say. In her speech, “Learning from the 60s,” Audre Lorde said, “if I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.” And so, many were — in attempts to own our narratives, we adopted labels and conventions that we didn’t stop to evaluate.
However, when the pandemic happened and people were left without the constant policing of society, they began to redefine themselves on their own terms. Now, more than a year later, restrictions are loosening, and it’s almost time to return to regular social interaction. What now?
I entered the University of Michigan at the beginning of August 2020, eager to major in environmental engineering. Now, I am decidedly not pursuing engineering for my undergraduate degree (not out of dislike for the department — after much reflection during the lockdown, I’ve found that my interests lie elsewhere). It’s daunting to float untethered, but it’s a step forward from lying to myself about what I’m interested in. My major was the easiest thing on the list to decide, and now, without one, I’ll show up to classes next year unsure of my interests or identity. But after seeing the alternative — convincing myself to follow something I’m not interested in — I’m thankful for the opportunity to question the rest of my life.
How we define ourselves has changed over the last year due to time spent away from those outside of our bubbles. However, when addressing the pandemic, it’s integral to remember that not all, or even most, change has been positive. Lockdown affected different groups unequally — many people have been altered by grief, loneliness and anxiety, and some much more than others. Not everyone was in a place where they could “find themselves” — many had to worry about simply surviving and keeping their families alive instead. To act as if this pandemic was ultimately a “learning experience” while brushing the traumatic experiences of millions under the rug would be elitist; being able to “discover yourself” is a privilege. The way powerful universities handled crises involving graduate students and underrepresented groups, such as students of color and low-income students, during the pandemic is something we must keep in mind as we move forward.
With the scandals that many institutions have gone through in the past year alone, it feels odd to accept establishments as a part of one’s identity. Additionally, it was much easier to define ourselves by the institutions we occupied when we interacted with them constantly. I’m sure that if a random person asked me, “Tell me about yourself,” during a regular year, I might mention the university which I attend, but since I live at home, and all of my classes have been online, the fact that I attend the University of Michigan barely crosses my mind.
Since we’ve been so removed from personal connection, the idea of “school spirit” feels foreign. What will football games look like? Will people still be proud to sport maize and blue? To define themselves by the school they attend? The answers could swing to extremes. Many, feeling lonely, may be extremely eager to participate in school spirit and make up for lost time, whereas others may feel alienated and therefore unwelcome by communities and events they would, in normal times, be familiar with. I have no clue what the next year brings, but I know it will be quite odd.
After mask mandates for vaccinated people were lifted in Michigan and many classes are scheduled to be in-person in the fall, a return to “normalcy” may be approaching. It’s important that we remember what we discovered in isolation, and bring it with us. As we move into the unknown, we can only hope that we preserve the eagerness to find our true selves, as well as our irreverence for powerful institutions.
Meera Kumar is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.