Since the tragic accident that left two people injured and one dead at last weekend’s football tailgate, Yalies and observers around the country have been asking questions about who bears responsibility and how to respond. One of the most common questions on campus has been about the direction of our concern. Why has our attention centered on the student driver and not the dead visitor? Why did it matter so much on Saturday that the deceased was not “a Yale or Harvard student or affiliate,” as Vice President and University Secretary Linda Lorimer’s email quickly assured us?
These questions cut to the core of how we conceive of community at Yale. In many ways, we see ourselves as citizens of the world. Our education brings faraway concerns to our fingertips. Communication and transportation technology make it possible to know almost as much about a teenager in the Middle East as we do about a teenager down the street. And our ambition and far-reaching rationality dictate that we not let constraints of geography or identity limit our capacity to care about people.
Even in everyday campus life, our ambition to reach beyond our immediate circles of concern to extend a hand is on full display. Many students spend time in schools and community centers in New Haven supporting those outside of Yale. Some seniors make the choice to spend less time with their good friends and open themselves as Freshman Counselors to 15 freshmen whom they’ve never met.
We tell ourselves that our capacity to care knows no bounds, and that a young woman dead ought to be our primary concern whether we live in New Haven or Massachusetts.
Yet I think many of us felt a different sort of pull on Saturday, a summons to close ranks and protect a member of our immediate community who was in pain with no questions asked. We felt compelled to push aside aspirations to commit ourselves to those most wrongfully hurt — wherever they might be from — and support the student behind the wheel. The story of a kid — someone with whom we’ve shared conversation and space — grieving over a mistake pulled on our heartstrings and didn’t let go.
It went against some of our most admirable instincts to give in to the basic psychology that makes people care more about a sad puppy down the street than millions starving continents away. But there we were, overwhelmed with concern for one person for no other reason than that he happened to be “a Yale or Harvard student or affiliate.” Questions lingered — what if he was drinking? Shouldn’t I be most concerned about the woman’s family now mourning a lost life? — but people’s thoughts turned immediately and repeatedly to the face they knew best, imagining the horror he must feel.
I don’t mean to be telling anybody how to react to last weekend’s tragedy. But when misfortune of this intensity hits so close to home, I know I’m reminded of the importance of recommitting myself to the community that’s right around me, of leaving alone lingering questions and carefully parceled concern and giving in to a deep and unquestioning loyalty to the familiar and close person simply because he’s familiar and close. I find myself recognizing that my capacity to care has limits, and that it’s no small feat to be a fiercely supportive member of our small community.
It may be easier to preach blind loyalty now that questions about the responsibility of the driver have been answered. And certainly our ability to transcend psychological constraints and offer support beyond our close communities is important.
But at a moment when a deep and personal wound opened in rare public fashion, we ought to consider whether a concern that looks to the immediate right and left before it looks anywhere beyond might be worth adopting on a larger scale. Communities exist because we each need someone to be there for us — no matter what happens. The no-matter-what has happened for one young man, and now is as good a time as ever to get in touch with our uncritical pull to care about the person next to us.
Ben Mueller is a junior in Berkeley College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.