A message conveyed in silence

There it is, the lure of higher education. We are all here stirring among narrow hallways and lining ourselves up like ducks for indoctrination. I notice a staggered looking fellow who appears to wander without direction while hundreds storm like ants to various classrooms, classes and careers. I am caught staring a moment too long at the girl across a Mac Hall table who reminds me of a friend I’ve since lost touch with. I wonder what history has brought her to inch long pink hair and scattered rings across her face. She is eating pasta over a book on statistical methods for biology.

These random field notes lay root in the social obsession we refer to as image; the piece of our identities that rests on the surface of ourselves. We cannot escape the necessity of societal integration and the fallacy in our perception of others–shallowness is what paves the path into a social existence.

The students of Columbine High School in Colorado and WR Myers in Taber are wandering halls this week as well, ones with a tattered history. They are exchanging glances, gestures and words. They pass familiar faces and new ones across space where bullets rang and families were destroyed. What student would dare wear a trench coat to school now?

The September flood of fresh faces and convivial stirring after the social coma of summer has reminded me of how important external image and validation are for daily functioning in our lives. In short, I am superficial and so are you. This is not to presume that we do not have depth, inner contemplation or intelligence. We simply present a thin colored shell of our internal identities to those around us. Fashion, gesture and shallow action are the banners that supply us with most of our knowledge about the people we meet.

For young people across the continent the genial lightness of personal image is tainted with the somber burden of death and social delinquency from the tragedies of last spring’s high school shootings. Do not presume however, that every kid with a long black coat has a Uzi ready to avenge the misgivings of his childhood on all those in his path. Neither presume that every clean-cut jock or fashionably sensitive valley girl is immune to personal trauma and vengeful anger. There is a simple age-old philosophy: don’t judge a book by its cover. Yet, we all do it every time we cross glances with a new face, falling prey to our preordained myth behind its image.

Preoccupation with image is often cast down to the shallowness of vanity and petty external validation, yet it governs far more of our motivation than most would like to admit. Ironically, we can wallow in the depths of our psyches endlessly contemplating reason and origin and spiritual bliss, yet nothing warms the spirit more than a simple compliment from someone we respect. What is shallower than that?

We should embrace our superficial selves, take responsibility for it and shape it to our liking. Understand that you will always be misunderstood and take heart in the fact that others will always influence you. But know that they cannot see through you any more than you can see through them.

Our social rhythm is deceiving by nature. We develop tricks of language and gesture to distort our demeanors. We hide our thoughts, our emotions and our ignorance. Some use fashion or social status while others rely on passivity or violence or a carefully crafted vocabulary to present a front. Look around and you will see no one as they are to themselves. This surface tension of uncertainty is what makes our social existence exciting. It’s okay to feel lost or confused and try to hide it. It’s okay to be a slave to fashion or to prepare cheap wit and humor to get you through the next social interrogation.

Hats off to Goth hair and your 14th piercing. Long live acid wash jeans and ac/dc T-shirts. Commend trench coats and the coolness of gap commercials and skin tight turtle necks complemented by white running shoes. It lets me know that you have deceived me as I am deceiving you. It reminds me not to presume to know who you are.

Students across the continent have a choice this fall as they indulge in the exploration of young life: they can choose to leave judgment on the surface where it belongs.

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