The unseasonably and unnervingly warm weather along with the continuing and developing efforts of the current Presidential administration to ruin as many people’s lives as quickly as possible are working together to create a disturbed mood on campus. Yet a specific incident reminded me of the quotidian heroism characteristic of humans in their best moments. The impaired help of my roommate and the courage and charity he and his friends showed was truly inspiring.
My roommate fell very ill this week because he has been unable to access essential medication which allows him to be healthy. Like many of the truly great students that go to our college, he orients his studies so that the pursuit of his academic interests coincides with positioning himself in order to maximally engage with the world, with the goal of benefiting mankind. He loves studying the processes of the natural world and wants to be an ecologist so that he can be part of the efforts to combat the ongoing disasters produced by climate change. Even in his state of near total debilitation, what upset him most was not his own physical discomfort, but rather the disruption of his own work. Like Nathan Hale at the gallows, his own sickness was for him a personal tragedy because it meant he could not serve the noble cause to which he is determined to devote himself.
In addition to my roommate’s own selflessness, I was profoundly moved by the concern people showed for him. Though he was very sick, he summoned the strength to go to classes and study sessions. His bad condition was so obvious that many people offered help. People texted me and asked me if there was anything they could do for my roommate and if he was able to access the medicine he needed. These were not close friends of ours, but simply classmates whose own human sentiment for charity drove them to help a member of their community who needed it.
I am prone to feel a disillusionment with Swarthmore and with humanity, in part because I worry that both have become—or perhaps always were— so corrupted that they do not offer a home for me or for anyone. The world is far from perfect, and Swarthmore is even further, but in both places we can obviously count in our company many saints and heroes and prophets and virtuosos. Yet, we often lose sight of this. In attempting to fight the injustices of the world, we learn to see past the false goodness and shallow values which pervade and erode our world. Yet our radical critiques do not and must not take away our ability to really love and really believe in things with certainty. The extent of our despair and outrage at suffering in the world can only be equal to our belief in beautiful and sublime opportunities of human existence. We can only be profoundly disappointed in the human race if we have faith in its capacities and capabilities. If life is hopeless and people are inherently bad, then there’s no reason to expect or fight for better things.
If serving the oppressed and pursuing justice seem hopeless, we must remember that lost causes are the only ones worth fighting for. Progress is made when people try to do things they are told are impossible Undeniably, the world faces grave crises. Our own government is now controlled by the orange-haired personification of greed and vileness and the sorts of people that would voluntarily and enthusiastically choose serve him. Nevertheless, we are in a position no different from the heroes of the past. In fact, we are perhaps more able to create change than anyone else. We are in a community where many do really care about justice, where there are many efforts and opportunities to help, to reform, and even to revolt. Our institution is not perfect and does in some ways limit our ability to conceive of and enact change, but surely these limits are not insurmountable and surely we are better off being engaged with our school and with our society than remaining in a perpetual state of cynical hopelessness.
In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech William Faulkner addressed the problem writers face in examining the human condition when people constantly felt bodily, animal fear because of the ever-present threat of nuclear destruction. Faulkner said that we cannot let this threat take away a writer’s ability to appreciate the noble side of humanity. His words seem as relevant now as they must have been then: “I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last dingdong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking… but I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail… because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.”