As I look out my seventh-story window to a lively 114th street despite the early morning hour, I am reminded of this city’s insomnia. With every pair of passing headlights and each echoing giggle, simple sounds known only to this city fill my dark and quiet dorm room. I can imagine the lives in progress beneath me, and even come close to believing I know them. I’ll match their laughter to a face in my head and pretend their identity won’t forever be a mystery to me. I am grateful to these sounds, but there is always an ache that comes with hearing fun and not really having it. The reverberating footsteps below remind me of all the people around me going places and doing things, and unlike them, I am still.
Living in a city that never sleeps, stimulation is never far. With this constant excitement comes a corresponding sense of guilt. If all this living is waiting to be had, what am I doing in bed on a Saturday night? If libraries are open 24/7, how can I justify sitting around relaxing? It’s hard not to feel like you’re wasting time when everyone around you seems to be doing so much every second. Whether it be internship searching, site-surfing in procrastination, or late night studying, it seems like most students here never stop to take a breath. So when I do, it feels like I’m doing something wrong.
As students in a big city, we encounter hundreds of people a day, yet we don’t give the majority of them more than a passing glance. Call it a product of today’s society, the technological age, or simply the chaos of everyday life, it all leads to the same sad reality: People today aren’t as willing to interact with strangers as much as they used to be. We’ve all heard parents and grandparents reminisce about a time when people actually knew their neighbor, conversed with the cashier, or smiled at strangers. The novel aspect of this tired tale is that we are now a part it.
I came to Columbia thinking I’d bring some color into the city so often portrayed in gray, but throughout my years here, I’m not sure that I’ve made the shade change much. Keeping my eyes and voice low has become the norm while smiling at strangers; acquainting myself with classmates seems foreign. I know I’m missing out, that a phone screen holds nothing real, and shyness will get me nowhere, but it’s easy to get stuck in the routine of keeping to yourself. It may result in missing out on some parties and forgoing some friends, but you simultaneously skip the part where others get to determine your worth—and whether or not you’re worth their time.
Keeping to myself is comfortable and easy, yet I still sit in my room with the window cracked, looking out over the street below, wishing I was down there too. I want to know the people down there, but sometimes it's hard to convince myself that the feeling is mutual. To step outside of yourself and approach others is to open yourself up to rejection, which is something we’ve all been so conditioned to fear that we avoid it at all costs.
It is easy to become socially complacent here, letting work consume our days and Butler our nights. We confuse isolation with “doing Columbia right.” But, think about how much more meaningful this place would be if you knew just a few more people—had just a few more faces you recognized on your way to class or at dinner in the dining halls. It may seem like a small change—something that would carry little to no weight in the grand scheme of things. But the only people who know exactly what you’re going through as a Columbia student are fellow students. So maybe they’d be worth getting to know.
We are taught to always look to the future—study hard, make connections, score internships—so that one day, it will all pay off. We take this advice to heart so much so that we often overlook the present. We don’t value the “what is” as much as the “what can be.” Living every day for the sake of the next, we lose out on the little things—things like the girl with the T-shirt of the band we like, the wave of a classmate along College Walk, the dinner with a friend we didn't know we had so much in common with.
Before you know it, these years will have run their course and we will be forced to leave Columbia and one another. When you walk across that stage some day in May, your diploma in hand, what do you want to see when you look into the crowd? The friends you’ve made, the people you’ve loved, the classmates you got coffee with, and the individuals who have changed your life and made you a better person, or a bunch of vaguely familiar faces you never really got to know? We’re lucky—we have some time left, Columbia, so join the party.
Nora May McSorley is a junior studying psychology and business. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org where she’d be happy to hear from you.
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