We Yalies are good at thinking about what is right, pondering genocide and even going to vote, but we have trouble taking responsibility for the world immediately around us. When it comes to fixing problems we didn’t create, it is the rare Yale student who steps up to the challenge.
We have plenty of excuses: we are already busy, overworked and stressed. But the problem isn’t our lack of time or desire; the problem is that many times we don’t feel as if we are responsible — or even as if we have to right — to change things.
Often on Saturday mornings, as I step groggily into my entryway, I notice some trash on the ground: red Solo cups, paper towels or plastic bags. It’s not my favorite sight to see as I head to the shower, but a little waste is the byproduct of a good time, so I try to be a good neighbor and hold my tongue, hoping that my good neighbors do their part and clean up the previous night’s debris. The odd thing about entryway trash, though, is that it lasts for days, just left in the way, in plain view, and strewn about the floor. Rarely will anyone remove it before the custodians tidy up on Monday. And woe if some trash falls to the ground midweek (it was a business card last week); get comfortable with it, because it also isn’t moving until Monday.
All we do is wonder: Who are these irresponsible perpetrators? And why do they always have to put their own sloth above the aesthetic preferences of everyone else?
I can’t help feeling this indignation, even though I make a mockery of myself with it. In truth, I am the owner of the trash as much as anyone else is. We harbor a myth that everything has an owner. We think that, for each object, someone — one specific individual — is responsible. This ownership myth isn’t so unreasonable. After all, just about everything we encounter is or was owned by someone. But the practical reality is that in regards to trash on the ground — as well as a surprising number of other things — the owner is long gone and far removed, so the object in question has de-facto become un-owned.
You can say that Yalies are just negligent or preoccupied. We certainly do have plenty on our minds. But I don’t think we are generally irresponsible folks. In fact, I think it’s our ethical reserve that undermines our ability to act. For example, even when a seminar room is sweltering hot and everyone’s armpits are slowly darkening their shirts, still there is a good chance no one will get up to open the window. If it’s absolutely boiling and someone finally does open one, the whole class breaths a collective sigh of relief. Everyone looks around, chuckles and acknowledges that they too were burning to death.
The problem is that no one owns the classroom or the window, so no one feels he or she has the prerogative to manipulate them. Often, we think that, despite some flaws, the world is intentionally in its current state. And indeed, just about everything has been put in place by some human agent. But even if so, there is no master plan; people just brought the pieces, and no one else knows any better than you how it all goes together.
Now, of course, some trash and a hot class room by no means portends the second coming. But there is a whole world out there that I, you, we walk right by without seeing because we assume someone else is responsible, has it planned out and has got under control. Unfortunately, with this attitude, there is only one, or maybe a few, people responsible for each part of society. If those people fall down on their job, shouldn’t we be there to pick up the slack? Or better, shouldn’t we fix things before they go bad?
Tyler Ibbotson-Sindelar is a senior in Branford College.