I was in a fraternity during my undergrad years and it was one of the best decisions I ever made. Fraternities are often derided as being all of the social ills of college rolled into one and the place where you have to buy your friends. Well, to me, whoever says that sounds like someone who just doesn’t know how to have any fun and makes foolish jumps to conclusions. But this essay is not intended to be a pro-Greek diatribe. It is, in fact, intended to focus on one small experience from Greek life that was not understood at first and apparently sat idle in my brain for years only to be revisited in grad school some 15 years later.
One of the great traditions of the fraternity is the senior speech. It is when graduating seniors get up before the chapter and talk about their experiences, memories and plans for the future. They talk about most members as individuals and share some connection they had over their time on campus, and it is almost always accompanied by a gift. Typically something fratty like a pledge dance shirt, a beanie from bygone eras or something else along those lines. Typically you start with the people you know least and slowly work your way down to the people that made the biggest impact on your life while on campus. The last person you speak about is oftentimes the person you hold in the highest regard, and it can often be emotional.
The person I speak of today was not someone I was close to. In fact, I had only been in the house a year or so and I don’t even know that he gave me anything. His speech was rambling and odd. Most of the time these things are fun (there’s typically copious amounts of booze, too) and a great source for the bonding that you get in the Greek system. This guy, well, it appeared as if he didn’t have a clear point to make. He was a worldly fellow and smart to boot. He went on to medical school after doing some non-profit relief work and education in third-world countries. He now lives in England where he teaches the classics. But on this night so long ago he spoke of the essence of the orange. Repeatedly. In place of a keg he had a box of oranges. He was different. He invited people to have as many as they’d like. I don’t recall eating one. But he ate many that night. Each time he would start a new orange he would peel back the fruit’s skin and take a long, deep breath, soaking in the effervescent flavors; the essence of the orange.
Each story would start with this phrase: “What is the essence of an orange?” I’m quite certain no one had a clue what he was talking about. I sure didn’t. Then he would go on some rambling story about some personal experience and then somehow, and longwindedly, bring it back to relate to someone in the room that night. While that sounds eloquent, it was in fact quite painful for most of us. I feel bad about it now in retrospect, but many of us didn’t stay for the whole thing. I don’t know if he expected us to, or cared that we didn’t, but it was disrespectful to have left. I mean after all, the $1 beers could’ve waited. This was a life lesson, so I would come to find out. I stayed for maybe 90 minutes or so. A few stayed until the end which was over 3 hours, so I heard. By the time he was done I was likely drunk. The essence of the orange had been supplanted by the smell of stale beer. On that night that was okay, for me.
It wasn’t until years later that I thought about that senior speech in my existentialism class in grad school. Jean-Paul Sartre said that existence precedes essence. In short, through existential thought, the identity of the individual is created through the reality of existence. There is no inherent human quality that signals an ‘essence.’ Now since an orange is an inanimate object, perhaps the fruit does have an ‘essence.’ But we have moved past that point now. What that senior was saying that night, so I thought (retrospectively), was that his experiences were the development of his being. He was creating his essence through the decisions he made in his life and how he related them to the bigger picture. He was drawing connections between himself, the world at large, and his brothers in the room on that night, so long ago.
Sartre said that a person can define themselves, but when they do so there are limitations to what they can become. We cannot, after all, become an orange. To believe so would be an act of “bad faith.” We can define ourselves only through our actions; and we are solely responsible for our actions and how we come to define ourselves (see this month’s The Geography of My Mind). I wanted to know if what I had learned in class was indeed what this senior so long ago had meant, so I set out to track him down. I found him (by email), as mentioned, living in England. I asked him whether or not that was what he was speaking about that night many moons ago. He asked that we speak by phone. I thought I was going to get a good lesson on life. What I got was less inspiring. He didn’t recall much of the speech, or for that matter what he was trying to get at with his box of oranges and his constant refrain about “the essence of an orange.” We had a good talk anyways and caught up, but have yet to speak since. I wonder if there was some profound back story I would’ve made greater efforts to maintain contact. Instead, I walked out early like I did on his senior speech more than 15 years ago.
What I did take away from the conversation was very much ripe with the existential sensibility of the experience. Retroactively I assigned meaning to a past experience based on the evolution of my personal thought. It did not matter that he didn’t assign the speech the same meaning or value that I did so many years after the fact. I was constructing myself through his words. I was making sense of my past through my current knowledge and worldviews. The essence of an orange, whatever it may be literally, is also always changing. An orange on the tree is different from the orange in the grocery store. It is different from the orange in the hand and the rinds in the compost bin. The rotten orange that sits in the field, forgotten by the laborer, will never serve its purpose of nourishment to the human, and therefore may not inspire a smile or a quench of thirst and hunger. But it likely will serve the rodents and insects quite well. These meager creatures may not consider it like you or I, but its essence will no less be absorbed.
Soren Kierkegaard said that life must be lived forward but understood backwards. And while we all operate with different meanings, different truths, what we make of the past and how we choose to interpret it to our lives in the present is all we have for the future renditions of ourselves. As I look at the orange that sits on my counter, I can consider its past. Where it was grown, who handled it and how it arrived in my kitchen. Its essence is not uniform, though it has some innate qualities that might suggest otherwise. But once I consume that orange it becomes part of me. I absorb its trajectory. The thought I put into it when I eat it, and my decisions to eat oranges again in the future, will all become part of me too. I exist, and I craft my personal essence as I continue to be. The essence of the orange is different for each of us. It is how you define that essence that scripts your being.