I’d been fishing before. In middle school, I remember going to Galveston’s piers in the late evenings, where people cast out lines with multiple hooks, baited them with efficiency and pulled up strings of wriggling, silver bodies. But this past summer, when I learned how to fly fish, there was something different when I pulled up the line on my first catch, disengaging the slender hook and feathery fly from the roof of the trout’s mouth.
It sounds cliche to recount and is difficult to communicate, but that catch has stayed with me, highlighting my responsibility for the consequences of my actions. At Yale, however, that individual responsibility often seems easily forgotten.
Yalies are incredibly good at identifying problems in the world. We debate passionately about humanitarian crises, about capitalism; we speak urgently about challenges to free speech and the harm of implicit bias, about the need to respect traditional values or marginalized identities. Give us an article, a guest speaker, all of society — and we can find within it some symptoms of a larger epidemic, point to possible sources of the malaise. Yet, very rarely do we consider ourselves to be patient zero. Instead, the change we seek is often exogenous, leaving space to ignore the impacts of individual decisions.
The conversation on climate change proceeds in this way: When President Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Paris Climate Accords, a slew of posts flooded social media with deep anger and resentment at the decision. Yalies questioned his judgment, wondered at his shortsightedness and generally declared the need for U.S. participation in a global solution. Simultaneously, however, most Yalies waste food and energy on a daily basis. Only a few of those people actively limit the time they spend in the shower, minimize their meat consumption or think twice about ubering for walkable distances, let alone pay to offset their climate footprint. Most concerned Yalies often shove blame and responsibility towards larger institutions, like corporations and governments, even though climate change is perhaps one of the biggest examples of a collective action problem which rests upon the consumption decisions of individuals.
Even when we speak about less tangible problems like freedom of speech and open, engaging conversation, few students make a personal commitment to uphold those tenets in their everyday lives. The same conservatives who decry the social pressure of political correctness frequently treat the speech of people with opposing viewpoints with open disdain or disrespect, failing to lend an open ear to frank discussions about identity and people’s different lived experiences.
This is true on the left as well: The pursuit of “wokeness” lends itself to critiquing and questioning the actions of others. While a critical eye can be productive, it should also be equally applied. The most important part about being “woke” should not be the ability to brew rage around others, but the constant interrogation of oneself — How can you question your own belief systems? In what ways do we think twice about the actions we take, both seen and unseen?
As we learn more at Yale, our ability to identify the places where things go wrong only sharpens. And I’m glad that we have opinions on how to fix things. Yet, when it comes to solutions for the big, colorful problems we see, we shouldn’t stop where it becomes inconvenient for us to make change, even if it’s definitely much harder to police ourselves than those around us. In excusing ourselves, we also render ourselves powerless, abstracting from the problem and considering it only solvable via some institution or centralized locus of power to which we delegate our own individual agency.
This past summer, while I held the trout’s slippery body and waited for a friend’s pocket knife, I marveled at the way the fiery red scales of the belly transitioned into the golden-white, black-dotted patterns marking the sides, how they rose and fell quickly in my palms as the fish breathed in shock. In the setting sun, watching the other fish rising in the lake before me, my excitement at the catch plateaued.
I thought about how, for the first time, I was directly taking responsibility for the life I’d consumed, for the irreversible change I alone had made in this environment. It’s something I think about now whenever I choose to consume something, do something: How am I holding myself accountable? How am I responsible for what I observe? While starting with the little things might feel inconsequential, it’s an important first step to check our own egos and recognize the weight of each of our individual decisions.
Liana Wang is a sophomore in Davenport College. Her column runs on alternate Mondays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .