Cersonsky: Get addicted to goodwill

Consider this: There’s a Democratic primary for the Ward 22 aldermanic election on Sept. 15, and you live in one of the four residential colleges located in the ward. If you want to vote, you have to re-register from your home district to New Haven. But, as a student, you ask yourself: Am I qualified to make decisions about the future of a place where I only kind of live?

That’s a fair question. Ask Morgan Freeman’s character in “Lean on Me,” or Lee Cruz, the fearless beautifier of Fair Haven’s Chatham Square, or any self-determination-seeking state: Communities can be happier and safer when they feel empowered to take care of themselves, without top-down controls and the votes of merely de jure community members.

But, as a Yale student in New Haven, that thinking gets you nowhere. Defining — even considering — yourself as separate from your surroundings leads to a vicious cycle in which you become less and less invested in them. In the end, not only are you de facto unqualified to exercise your constitutional right, but you couldn’t care less about doing so.

It’s the major pitfall in any attempt to preserve peoples and cultures: Seeing a culture as something to be protected effectively sets it up as unapproachable, a facet of another world that has nothing to do with you.

For Gandhi, avoiding this problem meant distinguishing tolerance and respect from goodwill. Whereas the first two imply mere intellectual acknowledgement and submission to separation, goodwill is an unconditional, gut-deep connection.

Luckily for you, and for Ward 22, goodwill is possible. All you need is some mental gymnastics.

It starts with the all-or-nothing nature of identity. I might consider myself culturally American to a greater or lesser extent, but I still am, categorically, American. Unwillingly, we are born with and become bearers of group identifiers. However much we may dislike them, we are them.

The great trick is that you can thrust some of these upon yourself. Becoming a bona fide New Haven resident, for instance, is one simple leap. Fill out some paperwork, and there you have it — you’re a voting member of Ward 22, no hesitation, no questions asked. Haven’t yet rallied at Dixwell Community Center, schmoozed at the Scantlebury splash-pad or perused the New Haven Independent? Now, objectively a member of the community, mental fuzziness flattened, nothing’s stopping you from doing so.

You’ve essentially chosen a path that will make it easier for you to become a genuine member of the community, not just in name but in practice. You’ve deliberately licensed yourself to make community-minded choices effortlessly: to read papers, attend meetings, sweep streets, tutor kids and get others to do the same.

Now, you’re hurtling forward in a positive loop. By officially entering the community, and then mixing your labor with it, you’ve given it value: personal value. In psycho-economic terms, you’ve endowed yourself with something you’re averse to losing.

Of course, while the yes-or-no affair of voter registration is the most official admittance into the community, it’s not the only one. Check out the Dwight Hall Bazaar on Wednesday. Talk to a homeless person. Run to Long Wharf, or Newhallville, or Edgewood, or the Hill.

Do things that are physical, visceral. There are plenty of intellectual arguments for why you should care about New Haven, but the best arguments aren’t arguments at all. Do manual labor. Pick up some trash on the beach. Knock down some buildings with Neighborhood Housing Services. Organize, restock, and reshelve at the Community Book Bank.

You know what you’ll be doing for the community, but you have no idea what it’ll do to you. Predicting how you’ll feel in the future is always a bad thought experiment. Trying something out — a class, a club, an internship — is never just trying it out, but putting yourself through a mind-altering trial. The activities bazaar and shopping period are all the more intense because you’re choosing among a variety of things that will, in their respective ways, permanently shape you.

New Haven goodwill is kind of like a cigarette addiction: The first choice is the only one that’s free. Once you make the leap to register to vote, do service or engage in whatever way, there are no more choices. It’s all obvious.

James Cersonsky is a junior in Timothy Dwight College.

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