Lately, I’ve been listening to a lot of complaints from friends about the general lack of personal accountability in our campus culture. I get it, and I’m frustrated, too—especially when I can see how I’ve let these antisocial norms influence my actions in ways that are antithetical to my values of community and responsibility.
I’m reminded of one of my favorite poems, “No Man Is An Island” by John Donne. It’s pretty short, but the main idea is that humans are inherently interconnected and that anything that happens to one person impacts the community. From how we treat strangers to how we treat people we consider friends, I’m concerned at the extent to which our community members act like it’s every man for themself instead.
Yeah, we’re college students, and we don’t have anyone nagging us to be responsible, nor is there even full accountability for our own well-being. The massive amounts of pandemic-induced alone time and social media consumption certainly don’t help. It makes sense to make personally beneficial choices but moving through life without considering others not only harms others but will also come back to bite us in the butt when others don’t feel the need to be accountable to us.
Starting with how we treat strangers, we can trace how our particular vein of individualism has gone wrong. Recently, one of my fellow columnists wrote a piece chronicling our lack of regard for the service workers who allow the university to run smoothly. Suffice it to say that other people are real regardless of whether we acknowledge them—whether that be a quick wave when running past them on Al Buehler or cleaning up after yourself when making a mess in a dorm kitchen.
Let’s move into a slightly more familiar group: potential romantic partners. Dating life is the topic on which I hear the most complaints, and rightfully so, probably because it’s so easy to do—or not do—things that make someone else feel bad. A lot of the issue, I think, comes down to how dating apps have warped our perceptions of what is okay to do regarding other people’s feelings. So, for example, it’s standard operating procedure to just ghost or flake when you decide you aren’t feeling it with another person you match with, which is thoughtless when you’re the one doing it but can feel kinda awful when it happens to you.
On an app, there’s no real risk associated with swiping right on someone if they like you—the worst that happens is they get the little “you missed a potential match” notification. In real life, there’s no failsafe; you can’t pretend the other person is just a picture on a screen or delete a conversation. We’ve lost a vital sense of vulnerability because it is so hard to conceptualize the feelings of others. Rather than, say, telling the cute guy you always see at the gym how you feel about him, it feels less painful to pine away and wait for him to make the first move. We at once assume that other people will magically know how we’re thinking while failing to consider how they may feel about us and why. When moves are made, it often seems like a game of who can remain the most unaffected and chill, for appearance’s sake, about whatever the outcome is. It’s no longer “treat others how you want to be treated” but “treat others how you are treated.” This creates vicious cycles of reciprocal inaction and coldness, and general dissatisfaction with how difficult it is to navigate romantic relationships in a time of such individualism.
Somewhere in between strangers and friends exist your peers, to whom you at least have some sense of responsibility. For example, in classes, maybe your project group stops showing up, leaves an unfair amount of work to you, or expects you to teach them everything that’s going on. While annoying, it’s also somewhat expected and not nearly as bad as our lack of accountability towards extracurriculars. Particularly when students explicitly sign up or agree to do something and do not fulfill their commitment. “Things coming up” aren’t exceptions anymore but the default. It just signals a massive lack of respect for your peers.
It’s not like nobody does anything; it’s that people only do things when it serves them well enough. The jokes that college students will do anything for a free t-shirt or dinner exist for a reason. We continue to complete the responsibilities we can’t afford not to—working for pay, searching for internships and passing classes (whether or not we can be bothered to attend them)—which are mostly self-benefiting. It’s selfish to choose the path of least resistance rather than either doing what you said you would—especially when you had the choice not to volunteer in the first place.
This brings us to the final group in which we are finding disappointment: friends, or people we would once consider such. By nature of the college experience, many friends will come and go. Some people we might only have a relationship with for a semester or less and then move on with our lives as though we had never met. It’s often natural as we grow and change at different paces. Still, the realization that sometimes relationships were only out of convenience—maybe even placeholders—can hurt. Friendships often fizzle out when the person initiating things realizes the other wasn’t putting in the same amount of effort to the relationship and stops wasting their time. If not a sustained relationship, I think we at least owe each other a little closure.
At any rate, it feels good to do right by your fellow humans. If that’s not enough, it feels terrible to be the one disappointed by the failure of others to fulfill their responsibilities. Think about how the person or people you’re letting down will feel when you decide not to stay true to your word or to make a choice that makes things a tiny bit better for yourself and a whole lot worse for someone else. You’re not an island; your actions have consequences for others, just as theirs do for you.
Heidi Smith is a Trinity junior. Her column runs on alternate Tuesdays.
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