My family isn’t big on birthday presents. Most years I get a nice sweater, wool socks to replace those I have worn through and a homemade cake. So I was surprised on my 18th birthday when my mom, straining from the weight, handed me a massive box wrapped in red paper. I tore it open to find a bright white KitchenAid mixer, with three paddle attachments and a big silver bowl. I suspect most 18 year olds would only be so excited to receive a kitchen appliance to celebrate their first year of legal adulthood. I, however, was ecstatic.

Since middle school, I have loved to bake. I love the creativity of it. I love concocting new recipes in my head, the feeling of flour on my fingers and that sore ache in my arms after kneading dough or whipping egg whites. I love making a cheeky little piece of goodness. I love getting to lick the spoon.

Most special to me, though, was how my baking made others feel. It became tradition that I made a birthday cake for each of my friends, and I enjoyed making them feel worth all the time it took to decorate. I loved baking fudgy brownies to make studying for AP exams a little more bearable for my friends. I reveled in the look on people’s faces when I walked into the room with my signature red-topped Tupperware, and how they all gathered around to wait for me to lift the lid and reveal whatever heaven I had whipped up for that day.

Baking was also a ploy to make myself likable. I figured out early on in my baking career that bringing cupcakes to class was a great way to get on everyone’s good side, and I became very comfortable living there. It made interacting with others feel safer, as though I already knew their evaluation of me would come out as a net positive. I never wanted any trouble, I didn’t want to step on any toes and I never wanted to be worse than neutral in someone’s eyes. People tend not to take issue with you when they associate you with dessert, and my irksome craving to be liked kept my kitchen busy.

“I make smiles with a big silver bowl” is the first line of a poem I started when I was 17 but never finished. It still conjures for me the feeling of cradling a mixing bowl in the crook of my arm as I slide a silicon spatula around its edges with a practiced twirl. It is a nostalgic feeling — I don’t have the same time, space or energy to cook in college as I did in high school. I also don’t have as much time for the sentiment. Though appeasing others remains my instinct, I work hard to convince myself that it is neither necessary nor healthy. There are arguments to make, policies to propose and national political battles to be fought, and none of them will be solved with fudge. (Actually, I would argue my chili-chocolate fudge could probably go a long way to mitigate national conflicts, but you get my point.)

I have always fled from conflict. I joke with friends that choosing a major like public policy, where every essay and assignment means choosing a side on a divisive topic, was a somewhat masochistic choice. Disagreements make me squirm. Serious confrontation is like torture.

However, in my adventures down the rabbit hole of modern politics, I’ve found there are certain conflicts that don’t make me want to run and hide. I will happily do battle for a woman’s right to choose. Immigration reform and immigrants’ rights? I’ll confront you 10 ways to Sunday. Policies that disenfranchise minority voters? Debate me, I dare you.

Passion shuts up my inner peacemaker. I have come to see the part of myself that replaces conflict with cookies as this older woman who just wants everyone to sit down for some tea and chat about “This Is Us”. Turns out, though, that she lived through the ’60s and burned her fair share of bras and marched in her fair share of protests. She fights her own battles, she just also loves pie.

Conflict is certainly not something I seek out, but I have come to realize how important it is to be willing to disagree with someone, both for myself and for the nation in this particularly divisive time when national values formerly deemed intrinsic have been called into question. Respectful debate and argument are valuable and help us grow and learn. Positive conflict can be like eating your vegetables. It’s not everyone’s favorite thing, but it makes you stronger and better, and it’s unhealthy to avoid it completely.

I love to bake. I love the warm comfort of making something that will make someone else content for a moment. But a growing young woman needs more than just pleasantries and chocolate. She needs to be challenged and pushed. She needs to learn to construct a valid argument, to engage with the world around her and be willing to fight for something she believes in, even if it means finally suggesting to her roommates that they clean their dirty dishes in the sink.

I’ll always make smiles with my big silver bowl. But from now on when I find the precious time to slip on my apron and roll up my sleeves, I will try to do it for myself and not to avoid an interaction that could encourage me to grow. A balanced meal can be difficult to come across in college, but we should all try to remember to eat our vegetables before we get around to dessert.

 

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