Whenever I go back to my hometown, I feel like I’m returning to a “Twilight Zone” of unstuck time—“One Hundred Years of Solitude,” except with more weed and suburban ennui. Save for the occasional cosmetic uplift of a building, or a new outcropping of McMansions popping up where a forest used to be, the space between Exit 8 and Exit 10 of MA I-95 is ageless.
When I was in high school, we all were convinced of our uniqueness, and that our angst was our shared experience that outsiders could never understand. It made us arrogant, it made us triumphant, and it brought us together. Now I drive past the high school and see the kids leaving school, and I realize they are having an experience identical to mine as my sister did before me, as the seniors when she was a freshman had before her, and so on. The lesson plans stay the same, along with the traditions, the archetypes of students, and the directions that they leave in.
I keep going down the road and drive past my elementary school, and realize the same is true, although that experience is so removed from my memory that I can’t even relate to having ever been in those elementary schoolers’ positions. But eventually they will be in mine.
My friends have changed, but we’re the same when we’re together. We do the same boring shit we always did (mostly commenting on how boring our town is, and making grand plans to go places that we rarely follow through with). It’s comforting, but it makes you go a little insane after a while. They drop me off at my house at the end of the night, driving down a route that I must’ve been on an infinite number of times. I stand on my front stoop in the cold Massachusetts December night and look out at my neighborhood, a vacuum of noise at this hour of the night, and realize this is quite literally the single view that I have seen the most in my life. I stand on my front stoop and I could be returning from my first date, or I could have just been accepted into college, or I could be coming back from my first day of kindergarten, and nothing would be different. This is my personal spot of the universe, the front door of my childhood house, a tiny piece of space that for me will always signify home, no matter where I live.
And this all is pure sentiment, and nothing more. But we need these rocks in our life, these timeless anchors to keep us in place. I had a conversation with a friend the other day in which she said she felt guilty when she spent too much time dwelling on what she considered selfish and menial subjects—namely, relationships and internal conflicts—in the face of all the real problems we’re hit over the head with during class, the problems that every new generation is tasked with fixing in their commencement addresses.
We’re going to spend our lives addressing these macro problems in whatever grandiose jobs we’ll all end up with, but in the end there will always be new problems to address, and a new generation to address them. If I come back to Columbia in 10 years and stand on Low Steps at 3 in the morning looking at Butler and the empty campus, it will look the same as when I was on Days on Campus, or finishing Columbia Urban Experience, or standing with my friends the night before graduation. And it will be the same. I will be a stranger on campus, just as I feel now in my hometown, but the people inhabiting campus will be identical to what I once was, just at a different point in time.
Knowing that the time we spent in an area and the experience we had while there are meaningless when you extend the scale—no matter how large an impact we thought we had—all we have to hold on to is what personally gave us meaning. And that’s pure sentiment. As much as our generation values irony and avoids sentiment, what gives our experiences meaning will almost entirely consist of relationships, lost relationships, and memories.
As we get older, the impacts we are able to have on the world will gradually increase, and what our spheres of meaning consist of will increase, but the cores will always be personal sentiments—the intangible things that don’t matter to anyone else in the world except for you and the people who experienced those things with you. We close ourselves off to the vast majority of people we encounter and only give them a shadow of who we are. But the only way to get through life is through shared commiseration, or through choosing people to share the burden of absurdity with. When I go back home, I have a family—my childhood friends and actual family—that will be timeless and always understand me, which is why going home is always such terrifying affair. When we leave Columbia, no matter how concerned we become with the real world, and how much we think that we’ve changed, we always need to hold on to that anchor. This, I’m convinced, is the only way to hang on to happiness and sanity.
Leo Schwartz is a Columbia College senior majoring in political science and Latin American studies. Rationalizing the Irrational runs alternate Fridays.
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