The Sunday morning before I return to Yale is sweet, air crisped by heavy snowfall. I’m buoyed by the beat of an energetic café, packed – a rhythmic soundtrack layered with excited hellos, bright laughter, warmth and movement all around. I’m feeling in love with the world, buzzed by good food, good people and the swelling wave of ideas and classes to surf.
It’s a feeling I ride for the first few days of shopping period. And then last Thursday afternoon, while I am on the way home from the gym, a shot is fired at my high school. A surreal stream of local news coverage follows. A 16-year-old boy is now in jail, and a senior lies dead. His name is Cesar Cortes.
The shooting itself is ruled accidental, although I think the word “unintentional” might better capture it. Over the past week, what I’ve thought most about is precisely the series of non-accidents that leads each of us to our respective places in time and space. There are more questions than answers: how did a sixteen-year-old gain access to a gun? What made him want to bring it to school? What placed the victim in proximity to him? These are questions about systemic factors and policy decisions, personal choices and community ones, random chance and fate. America undoubtedly needs better gun safety laws, healthier conceptions of masculinity and stronger support systems for children in public schools.
But there are also other questions. Every so often, an event hits home in a way that reminds me of the startling parallelism of lives far away trudging forward through the same time. The somber sadness of a life cut short reminds me of Mary Oliver’s much-loved poem “The Summer Day” whose final question retains a sense of quiet despite repetition by so many readers: “tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” This gift of more days, of an arbitrarily longer life — how do we make it worthwhile? How do we become worthy of it, make it a life worth living?
In many ways, Yale tries to give us the resources for a good life. I’ve met people who make me feel whole and hopeful and flushed with love on the darkest days. Looking out Saturday night at Old Campus frosted white and hearing the first years in a snowball fight, my chest expanded with joy, light as the still-falling snow. In class and conversation, I consistently admire my teachers and peers, the breadth and depth of their thought. And then there’s all the bells and whistles: yoga and puppies and wellness rooms, fellowships to travel and subsidized Broadway trips.
Unfortunately, so much of the so-called good life also depends on exclusion: an admissions rate that hovers around five percent and prioritizes privileged forms of merit, prox carded entries and gates so ubiquitous that sometimes I forget their existence. Some professors tell students that the most pure intellectual thought requires one to be an unbiased scholar, divorced from the gray sludge of normal reality. Students often define something as good by virtue of its rarity and distinction from the rest, whether a quality in a friend or a coveted opportunity. To truly study something, some say, requires distance. To truly be excellent, we are told, requires distinction. How we define goodness in our life here is often implicitly, if not explicitly, built upon the concept of separation, of barriers so subtle we no longer see them.
My home, school and community are good places, with good people. But so many of them are many miles and non-accidents away from what I have here. I began Yale seeing my inability to distance myself as a liability. At times, I still feel that way, upset that I can’t seem to get work done when too distracted or emotional about those who are overworked and underpaid, people who are stressed without healthcare or housing, who are stricken by violence in all its incidental and intentional forms, at home and at school and in the places where people should feel safest.
Nearing the end of my time here, though, I am coming to see that fluidity between the world and me as an anchor. It has taught me that happiness — not always joyful, but enduring, purposeful, fulfilling — comes from a life worth sharing. Yale has given me the gift of a space to know what bliss feels like, with quotidian worries replaced by kindness and curiosity, by bonds of trust and a close, if complicated and imperfect, community. But that in itself is not enough: many people here are often lost and unhappy, a dread of the rat race compounded by the fear that this is it, that we already have it all and it is deeply unsatisfying. A life worth living, however, must be shared. Even the thrill of discovery, in this place of education, ought to be undergirded by deep roots in a love of other people.
Sunday again, ice gleaming in the sun. In the morning cold, I am thinking in the quiet about Cesar, my teachers, the hallways we walked through, the lines running disjointedly through space. None of us are heroes, but just people, just kids, and have the potential for more. I think about what it would be like if I could partition out my days to people like him, to others who deserve more than what they got.
The silver lining is that we do not have to partition time in order to give to others. There are nearly always policies that can be changed, norms that can be shifted, power that can be moved, to ensure that tragedy decreases over time. And if we can recreate the high notes of our time here, what we have learned and gained, for everyone else; if we can close the distance between places like Yale and everywhere else; if we can create more convergences between all of our lives and the different parts of them, we might find that the good life blossoms into something better. That there are less tragic accidents and more happy ones.
LIANA WANG is a senior in Davenport College. Her column runs monthly. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .