You are what you believe


“You are what you believe.”

Growing up, this was my family mantra. In fact my mother made a placard of this phrase and posted it above our dining room doorway. Walking beneath it every day, I had always taken this philosophy for granted, and it was not until this past year of my life that I began to understand its truth.

After my freshman year, I moved into the UC Berkeley co-ops — an affordable, cooperative housing system available to students. After the confines of the dorms, the open architecture of the new house I moved into was liberating. It had high ceilings, murals painted on every wall, a river running through the backyard and chickens in the garden. The house felt more like a picturesque fairy tale than a college living space. Not only was the house inviting, but the people were overflowing with love. Most of my housemates had just graduated that spring, so the summer I entered the co-ops was glimmering with nostalgia and the afterglow of four-year college friendships.

As the youngest person in the house, with some of my housemates being recently graduated or even in their mid- to late-twenties, I felt like a freshman in high school looking at the upperclassmen with great admiration and respect. So when they graciously welcomed me into their home and included me in their summer fun, I felt just as fun, intelligent and witty as my housemates. It helped me grow into the person I had always wanted to be: confident and carefree.

When the summer sun faded to an end I moved into a new co-op because it was the only housing offer I received for the fall semester, and unexpectedly, a new facet of my personality came to the surface. I came in with the confidence from my summer co-op experience, but after I became intimidated by the witty inside-joke banter of my new housemates, I soon recoiled into a shadow or character of myself that I had long been unacquainted with. This new house was illuminated by fluorescent lighting instead of soft natural sunlight, the backyard was made of pavement, and the house was located directly across from a designated smoking area where wafts of secondhand smoke would often fill my room.

My new housemates were much more occupied because of the bustle of the starting fall semester and, as a newly incoming member, I felt unwelcomed in my new home. Because I did not feel comfortable in the common spaces, I often stayed in my room. Almost by lack of practice, I began to lose my voice and would choke on my words as they came out. I spent so much time alone that when I did have someone to talk to, I did not know what to say and doubted whether or not what I did utter was an appropriate response or reaction. For the first time in my life, the words “social anxiety” became much more real to me.

It was not until I took on the role of a head chef, cooking weekly dinners for my co-op, that I began to transition out of this mental slumber. In this position, I was tasked with preparing a five-course meal every Sunday for the other 64 residents of my co-op. Though this may sound like an intimidating premise to some, I was creatively inspired by the role and found my niche as a house member. After playing in the industrial kitchens of the restaurants that my parents worked in as a child, I was not intimidated by the abundant culinary equipment or the large-scale cooking required by our house. I was never daunted by the project in the same way that I was daunted by taking on conversations with my new housemates.

And who knew that making and eating food is also a social activity? Whether it was by explaining our agenda to my co-chefs, announcing my dinner to the entire house or exchanging recipes with other chefs, I unknowingly formed new bonds with my housemates that had not existed previously. And, with the addition of those new friendships came the subtraction of the thoughts that had sheltered me in my bedroom when I first moved into this new home.

Now with the start of this summer, an entire calendar year on from the start of this whole emotional co-op-centered journey, I have come to realize that these internal changes all stemmed from my ability, or lack thereof, to believe in myself. In defining my niche at each co-op, I learned that my self-confidence radiated from my belief that I was capable of doing whatever I sought out to do.

It may have taken me one dorm and two co-ops to remember the placard that rests on top of my dining room doorway, but now every time I come home from school I will look up above the door frame with a little more appreciation. Maybe I’ll tack on my own placard above my bedroom door at school to remind myself that “you are what you believe.”

Layla Chamberlain writes the Monday column on how routines create character and delineate personal politics.

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