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Will it all be ok?

notes from the past

I’ve been having this thought a lot recently: “We can’t keep acting like everything is going to be ok.” To be fair, I’m not quite sure who the “we” is here, and I’m sure it’s not everyone, but I think it’s a pretty wide smattering. 

I first began seeing Duke culture in this way as I noticed my fellow first-years and myself find our way at Duke through following various subcultures. It started just watching the droves of first-years walking around East Campus quad in that almost feverish Friday night way, dressed as if to make clear that there were all together. But once the thought first struck, it kept coming: when I ran into acquaintances coming back from the gym in smiles, as I sat around with friends talking about our feelings. I could go on.

Three clarifications are in order, though. First, I’m aware that lots of people, especially here at Duke, would never say, “I think that everything is going to be ok.” So what I’m really talking about are the beliefs implicit in people’s actions. And from our actions alone, it seems like we think that everything is going to be ok.

Second, the main action that tells me we think it’s going to be ok is the ubiquity of following a pre-ordained path without much if any personalization. It’s been most obvious watching my fellow first-years and myself find our way here at Duke, but not that much less obvious among the older years. You are free to read, “following a crowd” as the action I am writing of, dear reader.

Third, the small examples that inspired my original thinking here are simply parts of the larger web of potential paths that every Duke student can choose to go down. Lots of them run something like this: study hard in college, party to make it through, get a good job, make a lot of money. But there are plenty of other paths, like: don’t get too stressed about college or grades, make good friends, find a major you’re interested, get a job that you like and that can support you. I intend to be writing about all of these paths.

Which leads me to the point where I must say, to my own dismay, it’s not all going to be ok. You probably already agree with this, but here are two reasons why it seems so to me.

First, there is the whole climate change—or insert your world-crisis-of-choice—situation.

Second, there is the much more spatially and temporally proximate issue of mental health. As was just recently reported in the  Chronicle, according to the APA, 41.9% of college students live with anxiety and 36.4% live with depression. Living with anxiety or depression need not mean that your life is awful, but it seems safe to say that we would all rather avoid either of those diagnoses. Relatedly, I was told in O-week that ~80% of Duke students report being lonely or very lonely here. I have been totally unable to verify this statistic, and I find it hard to believe that it’s actually so high, but, regardless of the number, loneliness does seem to be widespread here at Duke.

In times past, it wasn’t so obvious that no one really knew what they were doing or whether they were harming the world. But now, with mental health issues affecting college students of every walk of life and climate change coming to seem like a force out of our control, we must see what has long been true: no one really knows what they are doing. 

So what does this all mean? I’m not quite sure, but it most importantly suggests to me that we need some more creativity in how we go about our lives here at Duke. Watching how others go about things shouldn’t be thrown out the window, but I think that we must be more reticent to set ourselves down one of the traditional paths, given that these traditional lives aren’t necessarily leading to great things! 

What invariably happens to me, though, is that whenever I find myself critiquing others, I realize that I have just projected my problem onto another and am critiquing them. For I am certainly no saint, and I certainly “follow a crowd” and my actions reveal that I’m complicit in most of the world’s great problems and that I think that I will live a good life if I just check off the boxes: fit myself into the boxes, that is.

Which brings me to my last point, a slight deviance from my main “thesis,” dear reader.  Part of the way out of acting like everything will be ok and “following a crowd” is to realize that no one really belongs in any crowd. 

Because every jock that I’ve known from high school till college isn’t actually a jock. For the category “jock” isn’t actually made to represent a real person, but rather a flat one-dimensional character that only belongs in comedy movies. Every pre-ordained path is like this. It is made to fit an unreal “person” who isn’t anyone that you could actually ever meet. Humans, to me, are infinitely complex: which means that any finite set of boxes will never be able to meet all of their needs.

But please don’t take this to be some praise of individualism or interpersonal isolation! It isn’t. I do hope, though, to suggest that by recognizing that we can never fit our whole selves into any of the common life paths in the first place, we are prompted to be creative and develop a path personalized to the time and place one is living in and the needs and wants that one has. Maybe this starts as straightforwardly as including religious faith and charitable giving in one’s finance career, I’m not sure. 

Which means that we must admit that we don’t know if everything is going to be ok! For no one has ever done just what we are going to do. We’re going into the future, after all.

I’d like to close with some words that I don’t fully understand yet, but that I like: We are living our lives as an answer, but we don’t know what the prompting question was because it was posed before we were born. Anyone who finds themselves in this position must uncover that question before they go any further.

Austin Smith is a Trinity first-year. His column, notes from the past, runs on alternate Tuesdays.


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