Columbia comes with a lot of big stressors. The process to come here selects for high-strung people, and the basic model of productivity is competition. Stress is an institutional fuel. And as much as Columbia promotes well-being, the laid-back types might find it difficult to get through 20 hours of class, 800 pages of reading, two papers, nine hours at Conde Nast, and a 30 rack every week while maintaining their well-adjusted nonchalance. If you are cool, calm, and collected, you are probably also behind. The idea that value arises out of competition is an American axiom, and, as much as Columbia students like to view themselves as acultural bodhisattvas whose sole raison díÍtre is learning for learning's sake, the Ivy League is the crucible of competition for people our age.
Lately I have found myself viewing my own schedule as an optimization problem. We endure constant ìencouragementî to be productive by means of a daily barrage of emails from all the levels of the bureaucracy touting achievements and opportunities, and in a twisted way it seems almost foolish to live at a normal, human pace. I catch myself valuing my own time not as a conscious experiencer but as human capital in a sweatshop that I also happen to own. Fitting meals into my day has become a new source of anxiety for me, and for most Columbia students a good nightís sleep is seen as self-indulgent. We have commoditized our own time, and allocation towards understanding the minutia of post-colonial agricultural development has apparently surpassed basic bodily function in importance.
On top of that there are the small anxieties. The class is full, and I need it for my major. I locked myself out, and Iím in a towel. The washing machine did that thing where my clothes come out soaking wet and smelling weird. My textbook from Amazon still hasnít arrived. Why is the sink clogged? How can I avoid catching second-hand body odor from that kid in my Music Hum class? Why does a fucking sandwich cost $15 in New York? Indeed, the modern era gives us these gems in addition to the polio vaccine and the personal computer.
Most of our lives consist of wading through this sea of bullshit, and most of the time I am very cognizant of the fact that I am waist-deep in this senseless, boring tide of tension and hassle and frustration. But every once in a while I have a moment in which I am lucid enough to look up at whatever stars are visible through the New York smog and recognize how stupid it is to waste my time acting like a brat. It is a comfort to recognize that so long as I have food and shelter and friends and family, my stress is mostly my own fault. So I am writing this as a reminder to myself not to get bogged down in the silly tedium of academic life and maybe, though it might sound crazy, to actually listen to the wisdom of Epictetus and Epicurus instead of worrying about my petty post-grad plans. Iím a lot happier hypnotized by the perfect beauty of the cosmos than staring at my GPA on SSOL and hoping the number spontaneously goes up.
Jake Goldwasser is a Columbia College senior majoring in Middle Eastern, South Asian and African studies. Thinking Twice runs alternate thursdays.