Michel de Montaigne – “Kings and philosophers shit, and so do ladies”
I don’t know if you have the pangs all the time, or if you used to but stopped once you learned to sufficiently distract yourself with a half point-higher GPA or with hours sold to an additional extracurricular, or if they only hit you really hard late at night when you finally get into bed and let the stress unwind for a second, trying to get your body to sink into the scrubbed sheets while you lie there listening to the soft breaths of someone above you, across the room from you, next to you. You’re alone, and it’s late, and these pangs of something hit you so hard you feel every muscle connected to your lungs tighten, and you’re not sure if it’s physical or dredged up by your subconscious. You feel fear –– you’re scared, so fucking scared all of a sudden. You wonder, did you do enough that day? Why do you bother to spend time slowly stroking the hair of your partner while they drift off to sleep? Why you stop studying half an hour early that night to catch dinner with your friends? You didn’t get a pass to that one club last weekend; you’re not sure where you’re pregaming this week. Do I go out only Thursday or only Saturday, or both? I have to go to McGraw but then I won’t have time to finish the p-set that was due yesterday; I already asked for an extension. Why am I so scared? This is all so fucking hopeless –– don’t tell me you haven’t felt like drowning at least once since arriving here. If you tell me that, you’re a liar. It’s 2 a.m., you’re sleep-deprived and still have some left over dining hall coffee coursing through your veins –– don’t lie to me right now.
We’re all liars here. How many of you have actually admitted your incompetence? Have you actually let anyone hear you cry that one time when you broke down and your eyes wouldn’t listen to the pain from heaving up sobs where are they even coming from how long have I needed to cry like this my chest hurts? You get up, ignore a text from your friend that you’ll answer later with a “Sorry, I fell asleep”, wipe at your watery eyes and get back up. I don’t know if you have them all the time, or sometimes, or maybe only once, but I know you have felt insecure at some point in your life –– pangs of it. It’s impossible to be thrown into a thimble with the entire world stuffed into it and not catch your breath at least once.
I know you can’t tell me otherwise. I’m less sure of something else: I don’t know if you can tell me that you actually did get up. Did the pangs ever actually stop? Are they pangs, or are they constant? Do they hurt you? Are you okay?
There’s nothing wrong with them –– there’s nothing wrong with you. There’s nothing wrong with drowning, with hurting, with second-triple-triple-another-time-second guessing yourself. You’re right: you could’ve done better. Could’ve studied more. That other person two rows down probably did get a better grade. There’s a reason they’re an Econ major and you’re just trying to get these damn pre-reqs knocked out. But have you ever thought about all the things you’ve done that they haven’t?
You’re lying in bed, and it’s late, and you’re feeling these pangs, just lying there and feeling them, and you have absolutely no idea that the Econ major is doing the exact same thing. So is your best friend. So is that kid you see in the dining hall who someone whispered to you won the Math Olympiads or the Olympics or whatever the hell it is every other student seems to have done nowadays, every other student but you.
You’re both made of flesh, and you both bruise when someone hits you, and you both cry when you’re upset, and you will both smile at each other when you see each other on Nassau and force out greetings when you feel another pang at their groomed hair, neat pants, maybe some fantastic story or good grade they share, and you will both feel this pang because you will both feel inadequate in comparison to each other– but how can you put yourself down in comparison to them if they are tortured with the exact same pangs as you?
There is an Econ major with pressed blonde hair, and there is you. And if you are the Econ major with pressed blonde hair, there is a Creative Writing major who can spin multicolored bubbles out of thin air using syllables and pauses, and if you are the Creative Writing major, there is a freshman who doesn’t know what he’s doing but no one around him seems to care because this boy will always take the time out of his day to ask you how yours was.
There is a king, and there is a philosopher, and there are ladies. And they live all together in a giant sprawling castle. Open a history textbook buried in the back of Labyrinth, look up that sophomore’s pictures from his sponsored internship to France –– do you see those gilded walls? Velvet drapes, sumptuous reds and golds glinting as they melt from every corner, carefully arranged to constantly remind you of their artistry? Light hits the white cuts of the crystals quietly swaying up above; the king’s heels clack along the polished marble floors, his robes sweeping up non-existent dust.
You’re walking along Nassau, and you see this Econ major. And you feel a pang deep inside your chest, and you ignore it, or you let it hurt you and then push it back down because fuck what the fuck is wrong with me just get over it. Hey, dude! What’s up? Smiles, inquiries about meeting up later and hey, did you finish that p-set yet? Oh, no, I’m not really done with mine yet. Your brow is furrowed when you say bye and move past.
The doors seem to move for the king when he sweeps into the chamber of his personal quarters. Servants bow their heads, quietly moving into the corners as he passes by, his head lifted, a carefully balanced crown barely disturbed by their movements. Fat hand encrusted in jewels, he places it on the door of the bathroom and pushes.
You’re walking through Fitz-Randolph gates –– side entrance, of course. You wonder if you’ll ever graduate. That’s a dumb thought, and you know it, but it slips in anyways; the twisted-up corner of your mouth quickly fades down. You try to ignore the pangs –– push your hands deeper into your coat, pop your headphones in, think about what you have to do next. Move on, move on.
The bathroom is glistening white, a freshly-drawn bath perfuming the air as the piles of foam reach for the clawed feet of the wire shelves propped up next to mirrored cabinets, tiny glass bottles of different colors and oils and colognes. The king moves toward the changing area, prepared to disrobe; before he does, he looks to the corner.
That Econ major, the one with the finished p-set? He just missed the first few words out of his girlfriend’s mouth in Small World. He shakes his head, smiles tightly, apologizes, and asks her to repeat herself. He was thinking about what you told him –– how are you possibly thinking of MAT204 next semester? He still has to take 104. Did you think your pangs are unique? No, that shit’s universal. He’s hurting so much too –– did you ever stop to think about that?
In one gilded corner of the king’s bathroom, behind all the gold and gilt, is a chamber pot, shone weekly by servants yet still showing signs of use around the edges. Across the rest of the kingdom, ladies are swinging open doors with their delicately slippered feet, moving aside velvet cushions to sprinkle perfume around their own personal chamber pots. Knights return from their hunting trips, pleased to return to their furnished bathrooms after the forest; their hounds whine in the corners. A philosopher, high up in his tower, quietly goes to pull out his pot, but after pondering for a few moments, he closes the door, sits back down at his desk, elbows propped on the papers and books below, and somberly continues to think.
You’ve felt inadequacy –– I don’t doubt it. But I have too. So have the people who will edit this paper and the people who will design the cover, the people who will read it and the people who will ignore it. The people who will pick up the paper just to read the Verbatim, and the people on campus who have absolutely no idea what the Nass even is. Other Ivy League students, other non-Ivy League students, your favorite soccer player as he steps out onto the field or your little sister when she has to perform in her first ever ballet recital. If you have ever hurt, doubted, thought disgusting thoughts, or felt overwhelming shame or regret – then congratulations. You are very much alive and well. But please remember that: you are well. Because your little sister will still dance on that stage, even if she falls, and your favorite soccer player may question himself every day for the rest of his career no matter how many fans he has or how many medals he gathers with the grass sucked into his cleats. You’re no snowflake, special with a unique set of six tipped points – everyone is hurting in the exact same way. But there’s something quite beautiful about that.
A man named Montaigne once wrote, “Kings and philosophers shit, and so do ladies”. No one can escape the physicality of their body –– we all have something to hide, something discomforting, and something to regret. Maybe that isn’t as bad as we think it is when we’re lying alone in our beds at 2 a.m., unable to breathe, or under the main gates, blasting music louder than our thoughts.
Outside the castle walls, a peasant leaving his outhouse hears the rumors of the chamber pots scattered within the kingdom walls. He pauses a moment, shocked by the news; how easy it is to forget that even the royals are people, too. And then he smiles quietly and goes on with his work. That day, he felt a bit more like a king than usual.