The fuck-ups of my first semester at Columbia can be summed up in three words: Bible, blogging, and fish. (Don’t ask.)
The halls of John Jay are essentially a cesspool for bacteria and gossip, so, like anything that has to do with sex, news of your latest hookup spreads. Fast. And it seems that when it comes to my personal life, I can’t really keep my mouth shut. I told my closest friends, then my acquaintances, then near strangers. My internal monologue went something along the lines of: “O God, my God, what miseries I experienced at this stage of my life, and what delusion.”
Let me tell you: St. Augustine is one relatable old, dead, white guy.
But just as I was telling the world about my experience, the other party involved was doing the same. When I found out that people to whom I hadn’t personally told the story knew, I was thrown completely off guard. It was at that point that one of my friends asked me, “But you already told so many people. Why do you care if they know?”
There’s a reason that Augustine titled his autobiography Confessions. His narration comes to the reader in installments occasionally accompanied by divine musings or multi-page digressions on how children are pure evil. (He’s not wrong.) Confessions is the fourth-century version of Augustine’s Tumblr account, with each chapter, like a blog post, having a point, but also being interspersed with tags upon tags of self-deprecating commentary. It might not be as scandalous as “The Girl in 04C,” but between his sex life, his juvenile delinquency, and his love of debauchery and theater, our boy got around.
The path to sainthood is paved with questionable intentions, I guess.
It all comes back to autobiographical narratives as a form of control. It’s not that the information Augustine gave was purely hypothetical—it’s that the objective facts were not the only, or even the primary components of his experiences. It’s the difference between tweeting, “I stole a pear” and “I stole a pear because sin is in my soul and I live for the thrill #sorrygod.”
I couldn’t verbalize it to my friend at the time, but it’s occurred to me since then that it’s not that I cared about strangers knowing, it’s that I cared how they knew. I was no longer in control of who had the information, or how they had it. The story they heard may very well not have been the same story I experienced.
Experiences are more than just a sum of moments—they are a conglomeration of thoughts, emotions, and context. And in this case, the way in which I experienced this incident was just as much part of the narrative as the objective logistics of what happened.
This isn’t to say it wasn’t fully within others’ right to go talking about this. I mean, in this age of screenshots and Google, once information is put out there, it’s a free-for-all. But ultimately, the thing that bothered me so much at the time was simply that I wasn’t in control of my narrative.
Tweeting, blogging, gossiping to your entire hall—telling the world your business, basically—that’s controlling your narrative. Now, live-tweeting your package center experience isn’t quite the same as structuring a multi-chapter text on religious revelation, or writing a bullet-pointed blog post, or even creating an organized, humorous anecdote about how “I had become to myself a vast problem” (thank you, Augustine), but the concept still applies.
Think about it—the very nature of having to structure your experiences into a story means you have to organize events into boxes labeled “beginning,” “middle,” and “end.” Augustine, with all his painstaking religious commentary, is sometimes just as annoying as the hell he thinks he’s going to end up in. But the commentary serves as much of a purpose for him as it does for his audience. By bookending his story with divine salvation, Augustine essentially creates a lens through which both he and the reader can view his life.
It also serves the purpose of creating both external and internal order. Looking at experiences in hindsight (because that’s what social media effectively does) and speaking on them in whatever meta capacity we choose allows us to create order out of chaos. When we tell our own stories, we are taking the shit being thrown at us from all directions, and creating a sculpture. Ultimately, we use storytelling to understand and organize an unpredictable reality.
This isn’t to say we can’t and don’t also use storytelling to present false versions of ourselves. When dealing with public perception, manipulation is always a factor, even if the intent isn’t to deceive. Like Augustine’s Confessions, our autobiographical narratives are inherently subjective.
Perhaps we’re drawn to gossip and social media as a way of reclaiming the plotline of our lives. Sure, we probably won’t have some big revelation with a voice from the heavens speaking to us through a conspicuously placed book. And maybe blogging about our hookups isn’t always the wisest choice. But if structuring our narratives through witty commentary and vaguely emo rants helps us feel a little more in control, then maybe it’s worth taking life, stories, and the Internet by the reins and pulling with all the force we’ve got.
Hannah Barbosa Cesnik is a first-year who spends far too much of her time on social media. She can be found on Twitter at @HCesnik. Everything I need to know I learned in Lit Hum runs alternate Tuesdays.
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