I walk toward the Barnard gates among a crowd of people going between classes. It is a particularly nice afternoon; the sun peaks over Sulzberger Tower and hits the tops of Diana and NoCo, highlighting the series of contemporary buildings that contrast with the more traditional exteriors of Chandler and Havemeyer Halls. The Barnard lawn and its accompanying trees create a little garden in the foreground of these buildings. I walk down Broadway, and my eyes slowly rise up to see the calm, clear sky brightened by soft sunlight. In one of the busiest cities in the world, things feel calm.
As I roam down Broadway, my eyes continue to wander, admiring the green, ornate trims of other campus halls and the multi-colored tops of buildings I usually associate with restaurants and bars. Consciously catching myself noticing these small details, I wonder why things feel so tranquil, and so… unusual.
I have never really looked up before. It is as if I have simply never seen these sights before, and am now discovering a whole new world. But this feels less a consequence of not paying attention to my surroundings and more a deeper symptom of what I feel Columbia—and life more broadly—can do to us. Namely, we find ourselves becoming cynical toward the same tragedies we were taught to stand against as budding Ivy League hopefuls.
Our simple human existence, regardless of who we are, inundates us with the anxieties, struggles, and pains of our time: climate change, rampant social and wealth inequality, the horrors of war and conflict. In spite of these common human struggles, there always seem to be roadblocks preventing us from genuinely unifying to face them.
It feels like many of us fall into a sort of “Columbia exceptionalism,” wherein the anxieties or fears we face as Columbia students begin to supersede those of the broader world around us. Of course, there are issues inherent to both realms; you cannot separate problems of class or race from one or the other, particularly at an institution like Columbia. Nevertheless, fixating on our own immediate material success—rather than focusing on the welfare of those we share broader human challenges with—still seems like a common tendency here.
In reality, how we focus on what’s “most important” seems to distance us further from the world. We create a culture where the only constant in our lives is a checklist; it’s so easy to fall in a rhythm of looking ahead, focused on the next task or the one after that. The cliché along the lines of “Don’t look forward so much or you might miss things right in front of you,” feels so real, because I have been physically guilty of this.
After consciously looking up, it’s not just the fine details of a pleasant afternoon that appear more clear. It becomes easier to consider things that we need to pay attention to in order to help fix them or at least learn not to repeat. The subway—a microcosm of this city—teems with people from wealthy urbanites to homeless folks. The towering firms of Wall Street thrive on overworked 20-somethings and government bailout money. Central Park, a staple of Manhattan, was formerly the site of Seneca Village, a nineteenth-century settlement of free African-Americans and Irish immigrants that was carelessly uprooted by the park’s construction.
Even as we went off for college, we were reminded to “be practical, look for the right path, and apply to the best things.” It’s natural for our loved ones to hope for our success and stability, but it’s worth remembering the cost paid to achieve these conventional definitions of “success.”
Our alienating focus makes us feel cynical toward the anxieties that we so often harbor about what is going on in the world. Yeah, you might feel frustrated, or passionate, or scared, but these anxieties become the background, rather than the foreground. Part of it, you say, is to maintain your sanity—effectively though, these become excuses. The climate’s going to change. People are going to die. The rich will get richer. All you have to worry about are the things you can control: your readings, your applications, and your next interview.
Surely, we cannot expect each other to get up and fix everything, especially those who may be more directly impacted by some of these challenges. But there is a real privilege we have in being students here. If we can channel this privilege and challenge this cycle of monotonous cynicism, imagine the incredible power we could tap into.
We’ve rubbed elbows with both the wealthy and the unfortunate in the subway turnstiles. We’ve walked past toxic corporate firms that thrive off of our willingness to satisfy them. We’ve enjoyed a park that displaced immigrants and African Americans. But now, can we look up from our checklists and confront what makes us uncomfortable about where we are? About who we are? And about where we are going?
It might feel scary, but the view is worth it.
Prem Thakker is a junior at Columbia College studying history. We all may have different reasons for the things we prioritize–especially given how circumstances can impact those choices. But he hopes we can all do a better job of looking up anyways, particularly those of us with the capacity to do so. If this resonates with you at all, he would love for you to reach out at email@example.com. His column Colon, Closed Parentheses runs alternate Mondays.
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