May 28, 2019

CULTURALLY SHOOK | On graduating and confronting a future

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Writing about endings tends towards the cliché. I want to preface this by saying that it’s impossible for me to write about graduation without feeling uncomfortably self-aware of the redundancy of my feelings. Of course I’m sad that a “chapter” of my life is over. Of course I’m “excited” about “what the future holds” for me. But all that has been said before and felt before, by almost 4,000 of my fellow classmates and hundreds of thousands more across the United States and the world over. And given that it is my personal opinion that the very act of writing about something automatically assigns it a level of importance, and that, of all the qualities I never want associated with my character, Unoriginal™ ranks at the very least in the top three, I truly feel that nothing I could ever write about graduating Cornell could do justice to my experiences there—experiences that had to be felt in order to be understood.


It is an unspoken law within the contemporary social imaginary that we do not speak ill of the dead. It seems this principle is not only applicable to deceased individuals, but also experiences. That is to say: we should not speak ill of “dead” experiences—experiences that have reached their end and will never be had again. Despite, and in spite of the reality that our experiences at Cornell were multi-faceted, multi-dimensional ones that were not the overwhelmingly exuberant ones we pretend to be in our grad photo Instagram captions, we tend to minimize our struggles while focusing on the victories. And that’s human. It’s how we process our experiences, how we cope with leaving Cornell, an institution that has become such an integral part of our identities. I do it too. And it’s not just a coping mechanism, it’s the truth: I love being able to honestly say that Cornell has given to me more than it has put me through. For that, I am grateful.


But it worries me when this tendency to minimize the bad and inflate the good is taken to its extreme. Bill Nye said it himself at convocation: negative people are a drag! And with this statement I have to respectfully disagree, because if I learned anything at Cornell, it’s that critical thinking is paramount, and there are more levels to anything than meets the eye. I respectfully disagree with Bill in that—Walt Whitman put it best—we contain multitudes. Being aware of those nuances—those negative qualities of an experience, an object, or a phenomenon—is a prerequisite to “changing the world.” In order to improve, and in order to guarantee ourselves a more positive future, we must be critical of the present. It’s only natural for us to be negative—the system has taught us to expect tragedy and prepare for catastrophe. In the wake of abortion bans, mass shootings, and far-right populism, it’s difficult to remain optimistic that the future can be reimagined. But reimagining the future is exactly what we must do, and it starts off by being critical, understanding the flaws of the system we live in, and, only after ascertaining their origins and determining their depths, working to build a future that is free of those flaws. That is a lesson I am walking away from Cornell with and one I know that the fellow members of the Class of 2019 are, too.