The best mechanism for motivation is simple: terror. Even the most distinguished and civilized of individuals can be reduced to primal behavior in the face of fear. Even Duke students with their meticulous four-year plans and those calming pastel color combinations they love so much can be reduced to panicky messes in the face of a deadline. And there is no shortage of opportunities for fear in our society. Beyond midnight paper deadlines or early morning midterms there’s the real world with a whole host of real problems that present themselves furiously and simultaneously: global jihadism, pandemics, budding nuclear weapons programs, market fluctuations—the list is unending.
As such, each email news alert and every page of the paper is branded by fear. We’re bombarded with catastrophic projections of climate change, of rising sea levels consuming cities. Missteps in American foreign policy in the Middle East very visibly cause tangible threat to American lives. For God’s sake, bird flu almost wiped out the globe’s population 10 years ago! (At least that’s what Newsweek told me.)
Issues have to compete with each other; the scarier a concern, the more likely it is to receive attention and the more likely it is that someone will dream up a solution, or at least a scenario of relative safety. And in this fear-driven manner the world has managed to keep up with the curveballs it has been thrown thus far. Human ingenuity: 1.
So that’s great! We’re not extinct yet. But as I get older and older and spend more time at Duke, I’ve realized something. I’m terrified not just by modern threats, by the manner in which we’re prepared to deal with the next barrage of crises.
Kurt Vonnegut described my fear perfectly: “True terror is to wake up one morning and discover that your high school class is running the country.” University of Delaware alums, remember that kid who was more interested in girls than studying? The one who has been vice president for the past four years? Or Duke students of the ’70s, remember Paul Martin Newby? Will you vote for his re-election to the N.C. Supreme Court in a few weeks? He did get his JD at UNC, after all.
To me, collegiate impressions of people seem indelible. Some of you will always be the 20-year-old who is perpetually late to meetings, or who has an inner ear perfectly suited for the Shooters bull, or who can’t seem to figure out how to turn the showers in Crowell all the way off. I don’t want to see the girl who can’t make it to an 8:30 class to save her life responsible for U.S.–China relations. Ideally, the inability to function normally and the possession of great responsibility would be mutually exclusive, but chances are, our classmates here at Duke will end up being actually important someday.
Saying this I run the extreme risk of pretention. And yes, I am terrified that some of you will be the ones responsible for the economy, for the function of American government, for the future of medicine and law and all those other things Duke students aspire to work in. But I am even more terrified that it might be me who adopts some responsibility in the world. Vonnegut was right, in that it is terrifying to look around and realize that you are the responsible adult. I never want to look around myself and realize that the future generations, that my children and theirs, will reap the benefits or feel the shortcomings of my actions. I don’t want to have to realize that I am a part of the population supporting the older generations and raising the younger ones. It’s terrifying.
Lucky for me I look like I’m 12. I’ve got at least 10 more years of “Can I help you honey?”s in airports and “Are you just waiting for your parents to finish voting?”s at the polls. I’m still clinging to the safety net. But it’s coming. There will be a time when people will stop discussing the problems pushed on our generation, the faltering economy, social security, environmental distress, and will start discussing what we have off-loaded on our successors.
Remember when Halloween meant the fear your parents would find out you ate twice as much candy as they said you could? We’re at the point where that is no longer our privilege. It’s time to brace ourselves for some truly terrifying apparitions. So come, metaphorical witches and goblins and ghouls (oh my!). I don’t know if I’m at all ready for my high school class to run this country, but it’s Halloween, and who doesn’t appreciate the thrill of a good scare?
Lydia Thurman is a Trinity sophomore. Her column runs every other Wednesday. You can follow Lydia on Twitter @ThurmanLydia.