Our Struggles With Either/Or

“Who says you have to be either smart or pretty, or into girly stuff or sports? Life shouldn’t be about the either/or. We’re capable of more than that, you know?” – Sarah Dessen, Along For The Ride

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In the middle of my 50 Book Challenge (which admittedly has not been as productive as I would like it to be), I found myself returning to a young adult novelist I used to love — Sarah Dessen. Although I wasn’t incredibly impressed with Lock and Key, the last book of hers that I had read, I decided it might be fun to breeze through one of her more recent novels, Along For The Ride, and thus far have been pleasantly surprised.

In this story, the stoic and studious Auden finds herself forming unlikely friendships with the girliest of girly-girls, as well as an intriguing but elusive insomniac bike rider. Just skimming the book summary, I immediately thought to myself, I’ve read this book. After all, because I read all of Sarah Dessen’s other books in middle school and early high school, I was confident that I’d nailed the formula — a quiet, introspective girl befriends a more outspoken slew of characters, and falls for a mysterious boy who seems to understand the world better than anyone else. Of course, Along For The Ride seems to feature all of this, but the book is more complex than that.

My first impression of Dessen’s recent work actually mirrors Auden’s early perceptions of the other girls at her workplace — I had judged the book by its cover. When Auden goes to work for her stepmother’s clothing shop that summer, she perceives her three female coworkers as obnoxious and vapid, only interested in material things. Little does she know that Maggie, one of the more bubbly characters, is not only a pro when it comes to finding the perfect pair of jeans, but she is also a genius in school (especially English), finances and bike-riding with the boys. Maggie claims that things aren’t always “either/or” and that it is completely possible to have traits that are seemingly contradictory.

Maggie’s quote (in bold above) reminds me a lot of the themes explored in John Green’s novel Paper Towns. I’ve blogged before about our tendency to transform the people we meet into one-dimensional versions of themselves — I even named my old blog after this concept! — but the idea of paper people never gets old for me. First impressions are important, but they don’t tell us the whole story. For example, in high school, each clique I associated with saw me as someone different than the last; I was the cheerleader, the writer, the yearbook editor, the nice girl, the mega nerd, and at one point, a possible candidate for Prom Queen (don’t ask me how… I had very nice friends). Several of these descriptions seemed to sort of conflict, and yet, here I was, a real person. So what if my life didn’t fit in a neat little box? Neither did anyone else’s.

We have to be willing to give our acquaintances and even our friends a deeper look; instead of pigeon-holing everyone into distinct categories, let’s remind ourselves that certain traits don’t have to be mutually exclusive. In other words, we don’t have to be “either/or” versions of ourselves. We can express ourselves and live up to our potential without identifying with a specific label, and we can accept others for who they are without relying on specific stereotypes.

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