Embracing Self Contradictions: Advice from Walt Whitman

One of my favorite books growing up was Anne of Green Gables by L.M Montgomery. I latched onto the character of Anne immediately, especially in regards to her well-defined personality traits. She was creative, never boring; passionate, never apathetic; and stubborn, but never yielding after making an initial decision. As a child and well into young adulthood, I admired the strong and uncomplicated aspects of Anne’s character. The threads of her personality rarely encountered crossings or tangles. She was herself without contradiction.

Throughout elementary school and high school, I modeled myself without contradiction as well. I created my own personality threads and wrote my own character sketch in my head.

Maddy Schierl: right-brained, outspoken, liberal, feminist, good student, athlete, artist, hopeless at math, nominally Catholic, perpetually ready to do more and go farther.

I had clearly defined principles and convictions. Often, I was not open to discussion with people who thought differently than me -- something I justified by telling myself that, if I was truly strong in my convictions, I would never entertain the complications of other opinions. I told people that I was terrible at math, even though I was rather good at it, simply to uphold my own creative, right-brained character description. I was a feminist, which then meant I had to be angry with the rom-coms I secretly enjoyed. “Prom is just a sexist social convention,” I remember telling my mom while shopping for a dress.

Of course, being a human and not a book character, I was constantly entertaining countless contradictions in my personality. I felt active guilt for calling myself an “artist” even in times when I hadn’t picked up a paintbrush in months. Could I even consider myself a good student if I wasn’t getting straight A’s every single exam? The interior incongruities I would find ate me alive -- precisely because I refused to acknowledge them as necessary.

Coming to Notre Dame in and of itself seemed to be a contradiction. I was a bitter and disenfranchised Catholic, as well as liberally aligned. I had my own “character sketch” of Notre Dame, you see, and I refused to acknowledge how Notre Dame could live outside of the conservative, Catholic, snobby, and entitled label I had created for it. It follows then, that my freshman year was pretty miserable.

I spent so much time waging war within myself, struggling against the restrictive, uncomplicated definitions I had created both for myself and for Notre Dame. Was it O.K. for me to love Notre Dame when I disagreed with certain administrative decisions? Could I find my Bible Study class absolutely fascinating even if I had certain gripes about the Bible’s application? Could I love and respect my friends even if they disagreed with me on political issues? Perhaps most troubling, could I still love and respect myself if I deviated from or in any way complicated my self-imposed character sketch?

Spoiler alert: I eventually came to the realization that my character sketches were bullshit. The catalyst of this realization came from an unlikely source: a dead guy. Towards the end of freshman year, I came upon Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself. In Section 51 of this poem, Whitman says,

 

“Do I contradict myself?

Very well then I contradict myself,

(I am large, I contain multitudes.)”

 

I still get shivers whenever I read this. This is where it finally clicked. The only things that can ever truly define me are my complexities. I am made unique only by the fact that I am a human being full of contradictions.

I am allowed to love Notre Dame with all my heart and at the same time be vehemently against some of its administrative decisions. I am allowed to enjoy She’s the Man and Miss Congeniality without any guilt and, at the same time, be a proud feminist. I am allowed to have many incredible, loving, and amazing friends whom I respect with all my soul while still disagreeing with them.

This is not to say that I am championing being indecisive in a fundamental conviction or that I think that having strong opinions is bad. I am only saying that we all need to stop being so hard on ourselves. We are all allowed to love what we love and be who we are without labels. Realizing this has been one of the most important milestones in my life. In the end, all that matters is that we respect each other and ourselves -- all our contradictions and multitudes included.

 

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