This weekend, I toured the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. The campus is a National Historic Landmark for good reason; it’s 340 acres of enormous, awe-inspiring buildings, sports fields, hedge rows, iron gates, monuments, memorials, and last but not least — mascot Bill the Goat.
The students were returning to campus to begin classes this week. It took me back twenty years to a time when I eagerly awaited the start of the new school year. I loved my college; it was an amazing four years. In hindsight, I would change only a few minor things about my college experience, but there is one decision I made that I genuinely regret: joining a fraternity.
Social life on our small campus was dominated by Greek life. Six fraternities, three sororities. Weekend nights (and many weekday nights), the Greek houses were alive with parties. Early on in your freshman year, THE question was not your prospective major but rather the fraternity or sorority you would pledge.
I knew I wasn’t into the drinking and the partying, but I liked the idea of being one of the guys. When I was accepted into a fraternity, I was excited. Over the next two months, that excitement turned into frustration, then resentment, and then anger. I had not realized the hazing that I would endure as part of the initiation process. Never violent, it was, nonetheless, an awful experience. I lacked the capacity to see the hazing as a funny game played by the upperclassmen on the freshmen. Sleep deprivation, humiliating “games,” inane responsibilities, mock military lineups, and total control over your time, I was completely miserable. We were all miserable, but no one brought up quitting. No one thought about questioning why it was necessary that we crawl around the fraternity basement with an imaginary ceiling only two feet off the floor. Maybe we were all worried about the implications of quitting: a social death. On a small, isolated campus, there was not a worse fate.
My pledging experience ended only once the administration became aware of the hazing and stepped in to stop it. We were initiated, but upperclassmen grumbled for a long time that we had missed out. That, somehow, not going through the hazing made us less-than-full members of the group.
My regret isn’t joining the fraternity as much as it is not having the strength to walk away during the pledging process. I wish I had had the strength to call out the upperclassmen on their behavior and simply quit, to recognize that the process was not consistent with my values and how I thought people should be treated. But, I was 18, and, more importantly, I wanted to belong.
Wanting to belong is a powerful force, more powerful than most of us are ready to acknowledge. It feels good to identify with something larger than ourselves. And, often, it is a good thing. But, this compulsion to belong to the group, to be “one of the guys” is also how unfair, unethical, and sometimes illegal behavior gets overlooked. Abuses get excused. The weak are picked on. Hurts are passed on from one group to another, one generation to another, all in the name of tradition or honor or some other bullshit like that.
I tried to change the system when it was my turn to be an upperclassman in the fraternity. I actively worked against the other fraternity members, telling pledges all the “secrets,” preparing them for “surprises,” and doing anything else to make their lives easier. The pledges were thankful at the time, but, the following year, they turned into some of the worst hazers I ever saw. They went along with the program, even though they professed to hate it. I guess the pull of the group, of belonging, had erased their memories. The group, with all its attendant power and social significance, justified the behavior, the mistreatment of others. It was a cycle of abuse.
A few years after I graduated, my fraternity was kicked off campus. When I learned the news, I said good riddance in my mind, my fraternity swag long abandoned. Ultimately, it was all stupid stuff, most hazing is. What’s not insignificant, though, are the mental gymnastics most folks engage in to excuse the bad behavior, all in the name of belonging. In the end, I learned that it’s great to want to belong, but it’s even better to know when you don’t.