It must be the end-of-the-year enthusiasm. Every time I walk to Commons, and often when I head to the residential college dining halls, I pass what I have termed “the gauntlet of guilt.” What I’m talking about is the many activists, leafleteers and other well-wishers for various causes who line up trying to raise awareness for an issue, garner support for an oppressed minority, or in some shape or form take my money. And there has definitely been an increase in activity of late.
I consider myself, as I would imagine many other Yalies also consider themselves, a generally ethical person interested in the wellbeing of humankind. Like 80 percent of Yalies, I did service through a Dwight Hall organization. I am very much in favor of signing petitions to support causes I agree with, of giving money to benefit the disadvantaged, and of raising awareness about issues that have wide-ranging impact. That is, in fact, why the corridor of people asking for my attention brings about guilt: I often walk past them. I think you do too.
Why the contradiction? A few reasons. One is time. I’m running into a meal, and then to an obligation, so stopping seems like a luxury I can’t afford. Then there’s the problem of volume — unique to Commons. You stop at one table, probably because you have a friend behind it. Then there are four other tables that merit your attention. I personally feel even worse stopping at one and not the others, but that might be my personal propensity to feel guilt-ridden. It’s like they’re all raising a withering call: “Me too, me too!”
But I cannot blame people for tabling, nor resent them for it. They are using every means in their power to bring about positive social change. The problem is that our society is not structured around service, or seeking out inequalities and rectifying them. Our priorities as Yalies are some combination of academics, extracurriculars, sports (of the varsity, IM or club kind) and friends — in essence, work or play, both to benefit ourselves. Going from commitment to commitment takes time, and meeting our deadlines takes energy. Who has time to seek out every social issue needing to be addressed? In that sense, the tablers are doing us a service, making it easier to help out.
Still, I can’t help but wish it could happen differently. Meals are a necessary part of the day, and often a time to unwind a bit, and relax. And let’s be honest: Engaging tablers takes energy. The biggest problem is that every time you walk past people, you become desensitized. Walking past once, because of rush or tiredness, leads to walking past more. Also, because I have done my fair share of tabling, I know it’s a really awkward process. You suck it up, and stand there trying to get people’s attention because you care about what you are doing. Still, you can’t help but feel a twinge of guilt yourself when someone walks by without even looking at you. Both sides of the table know what it feels like — they understand why people table, and why people pass by.
In an ideal world, we would seek out a service dialogue. Imagine a plaza where people would set up shop, and to which you could go to for the specific purpose of donating money, signatures or time. Then people tabling wouldn’t feel guilty, since the people coming are there by choice, and anyone grabbing a meal could do so in peace. But that would never work, because of course no one would go to said plaza.
So what is there to be done? Not much, really. As long as tabling remains an effective means of getting the word out, raising money or getting signatures, people will continue to table. Perhaps someday we will change our communal perception of service and approach it differently, negating the need to shove issues in people’s faces. But for now it would seem fitting at least to settle for a truce: When eating, talk to tablers more; when tabling, let people approach you, rather than yelling to get their attention. Five minutes from a meal won’t prevent you from enjoying it.
Dariush Nothaft is a junior in Saybrook College. His column appears on alternate Fridays.