The other day I was walking with one of my friends on Chapel Street, and we encountered a homeless man who asked if we had any change. After walking past him, I realized that neither of us had even bothered to say that we did not have any. It seemed strange to me that we had learned to disregard the man’s question, detaching his reality from our own. We had learned that it was okay to pass by this man and act as though we had not heard or seen him, as if he did not exist at all.
In our classes at Yale, we study theories of equality and we intellectualize ideas of justice. We parcel through the diction of important thinkers like Arendt and Du Bois but, at times, it seems we have difficulty translating our intellectual selves to the visceral realities of poverty and inequality that confront us every day as we walk to and from our classes. We study these ideas of equality and empathy intensely in an intellectual manner, but sometimes these conversations occur solely in the realm of classrooms, as if there is a particular time and place where we should contemplate these issues in often inaccessible, abstract terms.
During shopping period, we experience the peculiar Yale phenomenon of having to compete to get into certain seminars. This culture of competition is so ingrained in us that it becomes second nature, a simple flick of the wrist as we send emails to professors showcasing why we are a perfect fit for a particular course. We become presentable versions of ourselves, further fragmenting our identities to compat with the different spaces we occupy.
In other words, we have learned to put on various faces in different settings at Yale. In the classroom, we gesture with poise, analyzing the stability of a writer’s argument, using elevated diction and learned words. In dining halls, we casually converse about the weekend’s events — how much we drank, where we partied, etc. Of course, it is natural that as people, we are multifaceted. Still, it seems strange to think that we have to put on certain personas in the classroom as opposed to in other realms of our lives.
We know how to intellectualize and theorize and pontificate; we have learned the dance of applying to selective programs and vying for spots in popular seminars. And, yet, often, we do not know how to act when we are confronted each day with the sight of a homeless man, and this disconnect intensifies each time we look away.
Perhaps the very culture that fosters competition and elitism discounts the more instinctive but less taught virtue of awareness. There is a tendency at Yale to prize the intellectual, the complex and the selective over the simple and mundane every day realities, which are perhaps even more pressingly important.
Perhaps what perpetuates the gap is that we cannot rationalize some aspects of reality as we can study our notes and break down philosophical arguments. We cannot make things with which we are uncomfortable disappear. We cannot close the book and pick it up in the morning. We can come to understand the world better through what we learn, but we will always be left with more questions. Much of the inequality we see can be theoretically understood in the greater machinery of the world — in history, economics and politics — but still, the homeless man stands at the street corner everyday. And he is not a symbol of inequality or poverty, of the ruthless system, but a man with a vivid and unique set of life experiences.
We are taught to focus on our own futures, and perhaps rightly so, but it leaves room for understanding all that pulses around us. All these years of studying would seem pointless to me if I were not able to truly see and be aware to the life outside of myself. Some years ago, in middle school, my teacher showed us David Foster Wallace’s “This is Water.” I remember feeling bored then, but in high school, I’d often listen to it when I got lost in the minutiae of the day. I’ve found that it is indeed harder to cultivate awareness than intellectual adeptness. It is easy to become enveloped in the culture of stress that permeates campus, to walk through the streets of Yale unaware of the people around us, to focus only on the path ahead. And doing so may get us somewhere. But I posit that so much of what we ache to know, and so much of where we aspire to go, is not in front of us but around us, in the people and places we have learned not to see.
Meghana Mysore is a sophomore in Davenport College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .