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You are not the main character

You are not that guy. You are not Him. You are not a “girlboss.” You are not the main character. And that is fine. Neither am I. Neither is anyone.

Thinking of yourself as the main character in some sort of extravagant movie is a mindset that I find both annoying and problematic. But before I nail my 95 theses into words, I ought to explain the context before the student population of main characters motions to excommunicate me.

The main character trend finds its origin in social media on platforms like TikTok and Instagram, where influencers produce videos romanticizing their lives and encourage the audience to do likewise. Often, these videos follow the format of “a day in the life of a (insert occupation),” a mock public service announcement to do something or even self-help vlogs. More specifically, influencers call their audience to find seemingly mundane activities or routines and add a Hollywood-esque aesthetic to it. In essence, living as a main character in your own movie entails putting on the rose-colored glasses. Under this internet pretense, you might find yourself eating avocado toast inside a cozy brunch café on a sunny Sunday morning. You did it for the aesthetic. The phone eats first, right? Take a step back from your hypothetical seat by the window and realize what is going on. You paid $13 for two slices of avocado toast, though you do not like the taste of avocados. You queued 45 minutes outside sweating, waiting for a table to open. You along with every other main character seated in the café were independently engaged in a scene from their movie. Turns out you happened to be just like everyone else.

What I am insinuating is that the whole main character mantra is unrealistic — flawed. It suffocates the subscriber in a cloud of toxic positivity. “Your life is a slay. You ought not worry about what others say about you because they are simply haters, side characters, really. You only live once.” My life is, in fact, not a slay. There are struggles, disappointments, triumphs, frustrations and everything in between. It is vital to acknowledge both the good and the bad and contextualize their significance in the grand scheme of things. Although haters do exist, educated criticism is a healthy means of gauging, even regulating, one’s life. If I am acting foolish, I hope that my friends will hold me accountable on the grounds that they care for me. It is true that one only lives once, but that acronym carries a loaded connotation: glorifying haphazard actions on account of limited opportunities. I am not shooting down taking risks or doing dangerous things. I simply propose an alternative to YOLO, one that emphasizes a more focused attention to what really matters in our short lives. We ought to attend to our relationships because those really do matter.

Relationships with others and oneself is a concept that the main character trend jumbles. Assigning everybody but yourself the role of side character is not only a utilitarian outlook but also demeaning. Thinking that others only serve their purpose by their utility in benefiting your life is a flawed mindset. It has it that another’s value is inherently lower because the story does not directly follow them. Their lines are scripted and numbered. After they perform, a director pulls them off set and they vanish in relevance to the production. With respect to oneself, perceiving yourself as a main character tends to border on narcissism, a dubious outcome for a seemingly good intention. And I get it, people place their lives into a movie narrative because they desire to assert a degree of control over a chaotic world that seems uncontrollable. A movie is a structured form of media that has a plot characterized by exposition, rising action, climax and denouement. Attaching oneself to that sort of stability is a reasonable endeavor, a noble one at that, but I find assigning an inferior value to others truly problematic.

I pose a solution to the main character issue: Be real with yourself but more importantly, be real with others. This is quite the opposite of the fiction fairyland of positivity supported by this trend. Embrace authenticity, like when you find yourself cruising down an empty highway at midnight blasting music with your closest friends on a breezy summer night. Forget the Instagram story that convinces, in vain, your followers of your perfect lifestyle. Think about how grateful you are for life itself and that time spent with such close friends. That was not a main character moment, but it was a core memory shared among the people dearest to you. The accumulation of these times spent with other human beings is what we will ultimately remember when we lie on our deathbeds, not the multiple occasions of avocado toast dates with your phone.

And if you are the demographic that I have hypothetically targeted, I apologize for creating such specific hypotheticals. I invite you to think about the prospect that you can live a truly fulfilling life without being that guy, Him, a “girlboss” or the main character.

Jonah Tran is a first-year at Notre Dame doubling majoring in finance and economics and minoring in classics. Although fully embracing the notorious title of a “Menbroza,” he prides himself on being an Educated Young Southern Gentleman. You can contact Jonah by email jtran5@nd.edu.

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Lessons from our freshmen selves

It is almost 10 p.m. on a cold Sunday evening in December, and I am walking across the quad on my way home from a (somewhat frantic) Principles of Microeconomics TA review sesh, the likes of which I’ve never experienced before. It is chilly and dark, and the campus has a general “stressed out pre-finals” vibe about it. I, myself, have a general “stressed out pre-finals” vibe about me. 

It is 2019. And for some reason, all I can think to play on Spotify as I pace around campus is Juicewrld’s “Ring Ring” and Alanis Morrisette’s “Hand in My Pocket.” See the type of nervous and/or angsty vibe I’m feeling here? You can practically feel it. 

Freshman fall had been a whirlwind of an experience. The new friends and relationships, the different culture, the harsher weather — no one adjustment was too much to handle on its own, but the sum of these had thrown me in for a spin cycle (and paying for laundry was completely new). 

Things felt weighty. Like everything mattered immensely. Maybe some of this can be attributed to the sense of novelty that all my experiences carried along with them. I can still vividly remember the series of “firsts” that happened: my first home game, my first tailgate, my first SYR, my first philosophy paper, my first midterms (though I may wish to forget that last one). But even apart from that, I had a sort of first-year chip on my shoulder, not from any wrongdoing per se, but instead from the mere fact that I knew I had to prove myself. I had to live up to that Notre Dame name I had praised so highly in my admissions essays just a year before. There was a good feeling that came along with the importance I felt in even the most mundane of tasks.

My freshman year abounded with small moments that became big because they were indicative of decisions I was making on my own. I began to really consider my priorities and what truly mattered to me, on even the most minute of a scale: what I wore on Friday, if I woke up early to work out this week, the tone with which I emailed my boss or my professors, the list goes on. 

This obviously amounted to immense stress I felt with every micro-decision I made. After all, did “sincerely” accurately reflect who I was as a person, or was “best regards” a better fit? 

This stress did come along with a lot of self-compassion, though, and somehow I was able to be patient enough with myself and allow myself the time and space to make mistakes, knowing I’d have three more years to fix them and really hone my email sign-offs, amidst other things.

Now, a few years later, I’m learning from different mistakes, and the pressure is still turned to a 10. But I’ve noticed I am a lot less patient with myself. There’s an added “you should know this by now,” a judgment that has tacked on with time that is not conducive to a true growth mindset. 

After this reflection, inspired by when “Hand in My Pocket” came on after shuffling my Spotify liked songs while walking to class, I want to make sure my lessons from my freshman self are not merely constructions of nostalgia or an oversimplification of what times really were like back then. I want to make sure there’s something material I can actually take away from 2019 Alexa. 

And I think that every now and then, it’s important to take a step in the shoes of my freshman self, to adopt the viewpoint of my younger, more nervous and turbulent alter ego to remember a couple things.

Firstly, the small efforts we make here on this campus and here in this world matter. Conversations with a professor in office hours, whether or not we did that one reading for theology, the people we wave to on our way to SDH — these little actions and decisions can carry a small but beautiful weight to them that can leave a mark on us and others long after they’re carried out. They can be a reflection of our integrity and of what we value.

And secondly, although even the little things carry a weight to them, it is important to remember that we are human, and we make mistakes. A cliché at this point, maybe, but remembering to not cast aspersions on myself after erring and just allowing myself to take things in stride has made a huge difference in my life.

Now, if you’ll allow me, I’d like to bring TikTok into this column, as I have oft-done (and as is my right!) When the trend of “being the main character” came about, I dismissed it as some sort of appeal to internal narcissism. But now, after going through this vivid flashback or montage of freshman year, I kind of see the light. Things feel nice and concise when we pretend we’re in a movie.

In the spirit of romanticizing our lives, let’s take this first-year throwback’s lessons into our slightly more mature adult lives. We are, after all, still in the freshman phase of our adulthood. 

Alexa Schlaerth is a junior at the University of Notre Dame studying anthropology and linguistics. When she’s not slamming hot takes into her laptop keyboard, she can be found schooling her peers in the daily Wordle and NYT mini crossword, rewatching South Park or planning her next backpacking trip. As an Angeleno, Alexa enjoys drinking overpriced, non-dairy iced lattes and complaining about traffic because it’s “like, totally lame.” Alexa can be reached on Twitter at @alexa_schlaerth or via email at aschlaer@nd.edu.