Living in the Fish Bowl

“RA’s live in a fishbowl,” people tell you over and over. We…live in a fishbowl? Are RA’s aquatic, wriggling, gooberfish with round flat eyes, propelling ourselves around with our ancient paddle mechanisms, sucking tiny flora and fauna off of our closest friends and family? Do we nibble pellets that drift lazily, like feathers, through enclosure water, do we live in the dentist’s office?

fishbowl

RA’s are like fish in a fishbowl if the fishbowl were to be in the ocean, and the other fish look up to the bowl-fish as a moral example. And the fish in the fishbowl just CHOOSES not to leave the fishbowl because there are SOME things a fish can only accomplish from inside her fishbowl. 

I think I’ve made my point.

What I’ve been thinking about lately is how performative my personality has become. I am always looking at myself from the outside, representing myself in my mind with an image of myself from the outside, and not a mental map of my internal space (as I used to).  You’ve probably heard the saying, “fake it ’till you make it.” I used to think it was a soulless way to approach life, but I have come to see it as a powerful statement about the malleability of reality and self perception. Act differently, see yourself differently, and you will actually become a different person. Change your image, you can change your reality.  I have a real sense that I am constantly determining who I am. Everyday, I have the chance to decide who I want to be, and what could be better than that?

This kind of ultra-intentional self-image design does not exactly facilitate ‘living in the moment.’  I find sometimes that, even when I am alone, I feel like I am performing. I’m always in the company of a theoretical audience.

There is a sense in which being an RA punishes introverts. Being in a fishbowl strips introverts of their most important time. But more than that, being in a fishbowl robs us of the benefit of time spent unintentionally (for a community that thinks a lot about intentionality, we don’t spend a lot of time recognizing the importance of time spent unintentionally).

For me, being in the fishbowl has stripped me of some of my carefree sense of self.  I no longer give myself permission to simply experience my life–no, I must always be actively creating. I miss not caring about what other people think. I miss doing whatever I want when I wanted to. I miss thinking mostly about my own impulses instead of the ideal way to act in a given situation. I miss seeing myself from the inside instead of the outside. I miss the days when my identity was defined only by my idea of myself that day and not by my impact on a community outside of myself.

It doesn’t have to be this way. I’m trying to rethink what it means to be an RA. I love waking up everyday and trying to BE the person I want to be. But I also want to change the world with who I am.

So the lesson is, be an awesome fish. Show all of the other fish how to be a really awesome fish. But maybe sometimes, you can leave the fishbowl for a while, and bask for a spell in the sheer vastness of the ocean.

The Ghost of Campus Living Past


Every year at Lewis and Clark, 50 or so RAs get together and form new staff teams, and begin the work of the year anew.

Or so the story goes.

In reality, there is always a ghost of last year haunting behind the wings. Returning RAs see it everywhere they go. New RAs walk around getting an eerie feeling that there is something someone is not telling them. Who knows what ADs see anymore.

I remember being a little frustrated as a new RA. I couldn’t understand the divide between myself and the returning RAs.  Some of them seemed bored during training, or just a little ‘over it.’ I felt a little patronized by their reassurances; ‘don’t worry about it, you’ll be fine.’ Weren’t they about to undertake new things themselves? Who would REALLY claim to have mastered community building, crisis management, personal development, and peer counseling as a twenty-something? Why didn’t they seem to be treating me as an equal? And most of all, why didn’t they seem to want to get to know me?

Later on, I remember having frustrations with teammates who were really hard to get to know because they were clearly not over their last staff team.

Now I’m a third year RA, and I’m struggling myself. Training starts in two weeks, and I can see these same tendencies I resisted as a new RA in myself.  It’s not that I’ve learned it all, but I’ve spent so much time thinking about these issues, that a two hour power-point might not be what I need to grow the way it was when I first began. More than that, I have to admit; I have a staff team I’m not over.

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Those 10 people on my staff team taught me so much–I trust them more than almost anyone in the universe. I can’t find a way to describe what they mean to me without using the word family. It’s hard not to see training as a time when we can all be ‘back together again.’ I know that when I’m in that room with many of my favorite people it will be difficult to give my new teammates the attention and the presence that they deserve.

New RAs, you deserve to be taken seriously and to be received with emotionally open arms. But, just in case you aren’t, please, don’t take it personally. I know I’ll be trying my hardest, but I also know that I have had amazing experiences this last year; I had a year full of team love, adventure, and growth, and it is taking a little time for me to accept that a change has occurred. Sometimes we need to grieve the small things too.

But my team stands as living proof that sometimes, the journey has incredible things in store for us that we cannot anticipate. Right now, life-changing possibilities are open to me, if only I can remain open to them.  My former team is no longer together, but we are still a family. We’re just a growing family.

YOU are the Goddamn Batman

You are a superhero waiting to happen. All you need is the right excuse, and a good mask.

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The Resident Adviser job can be that excuse. At least, it was for me. I am often floored by the thought that my job is essentially to be a really awesome person doing good things. But the catch is, being a superhero isn’t really a job–it’s an identity. You don’t stop being a superhero–when everyone else goes home and relaxes, when everyone else ceases to think about their job, the superhero continues to live their work. The sheer expansiveness of superhero work makes doing it both deeply rewarding and overwhelming.

Every superhero needs a mask, and RAs are no exception. In fact, it is the same mask; an ambiguous job description and nonchalant public persona hide the simple secret that most superheros are actually ordinary people. Community facilitators are Batman style superheros–we aren’t born with laser vision or super regeneration. We bleed just as much as other people. Meanwhile, in the public’s eyes, the identity of the individual melds into the identity of the superhero, until the two are synonymous. In some ways, the melding of identities is a way of becoming who we already were–I have always had the potential to lead a community, to make a difference in people’s lives, to handle tough situations with grace. On the other hand, it is an obliteration of identity, because I never get to be just ME again. I am “Me the RA.”

Perhaps this wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for the impossible expectations facing a community figure. We sort of assume that superheroes are able to fix ALL of the problems, to address every crime, that Batman never sleeps through the bat signal. The reality for RAs is that we cannot do it all, and people will be disappointed sometimes. The reality is, we will never entirely live up to the mask, because the mask is always bigger than any person can be. I might positively impact the lives of some of the people living around me, but others who live on my hall will never connect to me and maybe even resent that I don’t interact with them in the way they’d like best. Perhaps I’m too peppy, or maybe not assertive enough, or who knows what.

And the successes are also hard to celebrate. I know a lot of impressive people–they volunteer, they have internships, they get A’s in the hardest classes. Much of the time, I can’t even talk about what I do, for confidentiality reasons. People don’t even realize I’m working sometimes; I have to work really hard to keep my door open. Even if I kept my door open 100% of the time, people would just assume that I am doing what I do naturally. But when my door is closed, no matter how much I have kept it open in the past, then I feel like I am concretely failing (in my own mind, if no one else’s). As a superhero, you will fail. If only yourself.

As is so often the case with creative work, when you really do it right, it seems effortless. Your residents, sometimes even your RA peers and supervisors, often have no idea how much work you’re doing. The blurred line between identity and work prevents people from seeing the struggle, the exhaustion, the growth.  What’s worse is that often it is hard  yourself to seethe impact you have. When the community thrives, I am often unsure if it is the result of my work or just an organic effect that would occur without me.

I found a quote this summer: “The strongest people are not those who show strength in front of us but those who win battles we know nothing about.” Being a community facilitator is an act of faith. You will work and work, and then you will trust that because you worked with love, the love was received. The bruises that were already in your heart will hurt a bit. If you felt softness, or in awe, or in love, with those around you, you will feel it more acutely.  Over time, you will learn how to be more authentic to yourself while still playing the role you need to play. There is no Joker, and no Two Face. The enemy is losing faith. The easy option is not to destroy the cape but to avoid vulnerability. These are the challenges of an every day superhero. But on the deepest level, this is who we are. We are all capable of a quiet, and ever moving, greatness if we are naive enough to act a bit foolishly, and a bit bravely.