Lasman: Taking a backseat

In Sikkim, the little thumb of India that juts north into the Himalayan foothills between Nepal and Bhutan, there are no seatbelts. As it was explained to me on our winding drive up to the school one typically foggy morning, this is so that if the car falls off a cliff, the passengers have a split-second more to bail and cling desperately to the mountainside while the vehicle itself plummets the remaining thousand feet to the valley floor. In the Himalayas, any number of factors — the mist, a hairpin turn, a landslide — might cause a driver to lose control on the narrow roads, which coil up the mountains like dragons on a temple column.

At least twice a day this summer, morning and late afternoon, I entrusted myself to Mr. Sherpa, an ex-Buddhist monk, endowed with quick reflexes and a passionate commitment to preserving the lives of the creatures who cross his path. This summer these included not only the pi-dogs that darted under the tires of our jeep but also the snakes caught lurking in our garden, which he captured in candy jars and released in the jungle. One of the snakes was a rat snake; the other was a Russell’s Viper, a species responsible for two to four thousand deaths per year. Mr. Sherpa was the barrier separating us from death, the guard-rail between our quotidian reality and India’s desperately high statistics of vehicular and reptilian demise.

Fortunately, by the time I got to India, I was well-versed in such reliance. Three weeks of travelling through Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan had meant bartered rides in taxis, private cars and marshrutkas, the vast network of prehistoric vans that serve as public transport between post-Soviet towns. Each transaction and each journey was an exercise in trust — trust that I wouldn’t be cheated, brought to the wrong location, involved in a car crash, robbed, kidnapped or otherwise diverted from a day’s travel. When, en route to a ruined city in the Kazakh steppe, my taxi driver pulled over and opened his hood, I had to trust that he was doing what needed to be done (stopping copious smoke from pouring out of the engine) and not what he appeared to be doing (staring bewildered at the car and muttering arcane verses). In a sort of globe-trotting egg toss, my life was passed between Turkey and India by a handful of strangers driving outdated machines on deplorable roads. Rather than let each encounter become a panicked memento mori, I learned to revel in the freedom that had resulted from relinquishing control over my fate and putting my life unreservedly into another’s hands.

As legal adults and Yale students, we pride ourselves on the liberty that comes from independence. Self-reliance is the cornerstone of the lives we fashion, away from parents and old friends with their claims on our time and loyalties. There is no class we have to take, no group we have to join, no party we have to attend. Yale is both large enough that we don’t feel constrained in our choice of company or majors and small enough that those choices seem distinct and meaningful — those we don’t pick are ever-present reminders of our decisions. We chafe at admonitions from deans, police chiefs, roommates and significant others as impingements on our autonomy, affronts to our paramount right of personal independence.

Here, there are precious few situations that force trust upon us, let alone trust with mortal consequences. With no precipitous cliffs or coiled pit vipers, it is much harder to recognize the Mr. Sherpas who avoid or remove such obstacles, and much easier to shy away from situations that bring us face-to-face with the need to rely on strengths and intelligences outside our own. Talking about community is something we’re attuned to since preschool, so much so that it can often fade into white noise. Being part of a team, a college or a suite can be smoothed so long as we withhold a crucial portion of self.

And yet, fresh from the highways of Central Asia, I have a suspicion that I might gain something from relinquishing some measure of my closely-guarded personal freedom.

There are inevitable moments here — the first days of a new rooming situation, late-night problem set collaborations, the first lines of an improv scene — when individual futures become shared responsibilities. The stakes may not be quite as high as they are cresting a blind corner at 5,000 feet, but once again there is a benefit to accepting the transfer, even the partial transfer, of one life into another’s keeping. Keeping our autonomy, yes, but also preserving it as something to be freely given, in an attempt to access some even greater freedom.

Sam Lasman is a junior in Berkeley College.

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