Daphne Chen wrote a brilliantly honest letter to University President Lee Bollinger last week calling on him to respond more often to students’ concerns, but we know, unfortunately, that Bollinger is unlikely to modify his usual behavior or respond in any way. Our football team, which we all want to see succeed, is not going to radically improve overnight. The dearth of a vibrant campus community will take years, and much effort, to overcome. The pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian communities are unlikely to begin talking to one another, and, given the choice, none of us are actually going to sacrifice our chances at real world success for pure intellectual cultivation in the ivory tower.
Columbia, especially in the opinion section of this paper, has a strong tradition of holding the student body and administration to high standards. We are a community of critique and activism. We understand that producing change is difficult and rare, but it has been done before and is worth doing. The divestment campaign and the Student Wellness Project are just two of the many changes that we, collectively, have worked to introduce.
But despite our best intentions, our constant clamor to better things has an obscured side effect. Demanding opinion pieces and a community that is serious about improving the status quo tend, also, to bring about the constant realization that things are not as they should be. Our overzealous nature is both a blessing and a curse: In our efforts to do good, we also magnify the problems around us.
Staying silent achieves even less, though, so we should be proud about our passion for reform. But reform takes time, whether we like it or not. We will have to raise the same call for change many times. In this stubborn environment, is it not possible that our obsessive attempts to better our surroundings make us all just a little more dissatisfied with our current student experience?
Our inability to find satisfaction in our reality hurts us, too, as individuals. We are so anxious to achieve and improve that we cause ourselves undue stress. I understand intimately well how often we have to crunch three papers and two exams in less than a week and how every grade matters for that job on Wall Street, admission to law school, or whatever else is our dream. That stress is real, and it is not our fault. But we make it worse.
The more we talk about our dismal job prospects, the more we worry about our futures. The more we complain about our ridiculously long nights in Butler, the less we enjoy the privilege we have to attain a liberal arts education from world-renowned professors at an Ivy League university. By giving in to our weaker instincts and becoming obsessively anxious about our workload, instead of enjoying our surroundings, our friends, and our books, we make the stress cycle worse. The more we critique the imperfection of our academic community instead of reveling in its many undeniable jewels, the less happy we are.
It is time that we alter our accounting. While we hope for something better, we should begin to look at what we already have in front of us. While we shout the clarion call that “Columbia has no community,” we should stop and recognize that we have already begun to create one. Hundreds of students have begun to care and talk about football, an activity that involves only a few dozen individuals. Hundreds of students read Chen’s op-ed. Hundreds of students are individually calling for the creation of a stronger communal feeling, recognizing that our campus dialogue can be improved and reaching across dividing lines to learn from others. We are united in this. We have a created a community of voices. It isn’t the ideal community we envision. And we can surely do better. But look at what we have already done.
A week or two ago, I went to see “Grieving for Fish,” an original on-campus play. The plot focused on college life for first-years and the lives of students with mental illness. It taught a lesson I found particularly applicable to our community as a whole. At the play’s end, Mind, the narrator, told the audience what is obvious and frightening: Things are bad, and we don’t know if they will get better. But “today,” the final line went, “you are alive.”
Columbia, keep pushing the limits of what is possible. Be demanding, and do not settle. But look around and breathe and smile. Look at what you have and who is there for you. There is much at Columbia that is not ideal. This is true, I might add, of life as well. So measure happiness not by what we all hope will improve but by what we all already have. There is beauty in that too.
Joshua Fattal is a Columbia College junior majoring in history. Fattal Attraction runs Alternate Mondays.
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