December 15, 2017

AN EDUCATION | On Being Lost in the Murky Twilight Zone of Finals Week

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We’re in that strange twilight zone between the end of classes and going home: is it finals week or is it the end of all things looming? I couldn’t tell you how the time has been passing; all I know is that I wake up, work-work-work (or try, at least), forget to eat, get too tired to continue working, and go to bed at strange hours, the only constant in my life being the fact that I’m perpetually falling behind the rigorous study schedule I devised for myself in a last-ditch attempt to #savemysemester. And throughout all this, I’m counting the days until I can book it out of here and go home to a place more grounded in reality than this one.

Perhaps I’m suffering from lack of structure. I’ve eaten two meals in the dining hall in the past week (RIP my unlimited meal plan), instead sustaining myself mostly on free coffee, mini marshmallows, and peanut butter banana sandwiches I make in the Cook house pantry at midnight. I drift around campus with increasing anomie, looking for a place my mind will feel settled enough to focus: from my bed to Goldwin Smith to Rockefeller, to Olin stacks, to eHub and CTB — and I fail, perpetually unmoored, feeling present and grounded in no place. My days of loitering with purpose in Rose House in search of chia pudding for second dinner are but a distant memory now.

Time is always strange at Cornell, though. I’ve given up on trying to categorize it as passing quickly or slowly, because it’s always both. The emptier days pass by even faster than the busiest ones, and at least a few times a semester you spiral into a crazy bad place where one day becomes two and you have to call the Uris Cocktail lounge home. Sometimes it’s easy to get lost in this lack of clarity, to go day by day in a bit of a haze, taking things as they are, and to accept this state of being as your new reality.

In your classes you try to ground yourself in terms like “biopolitics” and “microphysics of race and gender” and “radical alternative kinship” and “local enhancement,” even though the spaces in which they make sense seems to be very narrow and limited mostly to the classroom — which in itself seems to operate on a different level than base reality. Very few things feel grounded in actual truth or conviction; most concepts remain only theoretical in your mind, which you apply carefully to practice problems and papers when the time comes. (And nothing more.)

And your life is continuing. You tell yourself feeling lost is part of youth, but resigning yourself to fundamental confusion is a dangerous way of living. How long can you delude yourself?

Part of my sophomore slump has manifested in impatience with delusion — directed at myself, at others, at some classes, some structures, some excuses, attitudes, ways of thinking — and at this institution. I’m tired of tolerating bullshit, and I’m tired of accepting this strangely warped reality we live in without question. I’m tired of my habit of sleeping at 4:00 a.m. a few times a week. I’m frustrated by the limitations of certain course offerings and syllabi, by certain ideological frameworks, random fees and fines, and already inadequate or underfunded programs perpetually under threat of being cut.

As a freshman I just wanted to prove that I was good enough for Cornell; that I was smart enough, that I could belong. But it’s not a question of merit — even if we think we deserve to be here, we can’t say that so many others didn’t. I’d like to move past the expectation of constant gratitude, of constantly proving our worth from the perspective that it’s a privilege to be here, and to remind ourselves that we produce for the university, and we are the ones who are prolonging and promoting Cornell’s legacy as an elite institution (and thus also as a bastion of elitism, despite our claims of egalitarianism).

Maybe my attitude is rotten: I’m too critical, embittered, or unrealistic. Of course, I’m thankful to be here, and I’m thankful for the resources and the opportunities that it has presented me with, which I have tried my best to take advantage of (which is also the cause of my late bedtime and f***ed-up sleep cycle, haha!) — but it’s not enough to accept things as they are and numb ourselves to a reality of warped values and questionable motivations. I don’t understand why, if my standards are high for myself, they can’t also be higher for Cornell, when education is supposed to be about truth.  

There is no reciprocity in our relationship to this place. I truly believe it sees us as tuition-paying students or subjects before it sees us as people. Sometimes I’m certain it both hates and fears us, even as it takes us for granted. And so I don’t know that I’ll be able to find any true or lasting clarity within the university, when its basic priorities are so skewed. Maybe that seems hard and pessimistic, but we have to look at the things that are hard, and grapple with them, if we ever hope to reach any clarity.  

The clarity that I’ve found is that we can’t see ourselves that way. If I try to frame the past four months in terms of my semester, then it was a hot mess. But there was so much more. I’ve found brief moments of clarity despite the perpetual murkiness of the university, and I’ve felt it most when I see myself as a person before I see myself as a student. When I orient myself towards life, towards people I’ve been able to build relationships with, who make me feel warm and full and certain that there’s something there — I’m completely fine. A lot of the time I feel like certainty may be naive, when there’s so obviously so much complexity in life. Maybe I told myself that I wanted to accept and feel okay with not even knowing what may be right and what may be wrong. But sure, everything is complex — not even trying to engage with it is a cop-out. Resigning yourself to moral ambiguity will leave you lost your whole life.

Certainly if there’s a time to feel lost, now might be that time, and there’s nothing wrong with it. But I think you know what’s real when you come across it, and to numb yourself to incoherencies and to resign yourself to being lost for the time being is an attitude of despair and doom. I get lost a few times a day, but this semester I’ve found a place to refine my thoughts, to read and discuss frankly and critically, and to actually think, in ways that may have happened outside of class or school, but are deep pursuits of truth. And I’m saying now that I’m committing to grounding myself in things that are real.

Because when I feel clarity, I know that I can keep going. I know that no matter how hard things get, what I do is with purpose and deliberate intent, and not just out of pressure or necessity or stress. With clarity, I can recenter around what’s truly important, and because of that, clarity is the thing I will fight and live and die for. Without clarity or conviction in a vision, everything else — even the point of being here — easily slides into ambiguity and murkiness, and I don’t want it.

If I can remember moments of clarity, I’ll be fine; I’ll make it out of the twilight zone somehow. I hope that you will too, and I hope you can find clarity and the courage to commit to it for at least one moment of peace in this hellscape of finals week!