We students talk a lot about the Swarthmore “bubble” — that invisible structure that keeps us isolated from the outside world in our ivory tower of academia. Yes, we sometimes venture into Philly and Chester and the surrounding community, but by and large, we remain insulated in our stressful, but comparatively comfortable, world of classes and extracurriculars. Our complaints and griefs center around tricky problem sets and headache-inducing papers. At least, this is the reality that we project as a community, the reality that we talk about in our day-to-day conversations with friends and classmates. Yet, the idea of this “bubble” is an illusion. Many of us do not and cannot live in the luxury of the “bubble,” even if there were no pandemic to worry about. We as a community need to recognize that and acknowledge the multitude of apocalyptic, devastating challenges we are facing and internally coping on a daily basis.
Of course, this is not a novel idea. It isn’t like the challenges Swarthmore students are dealing with are new or unique to us; structural racism, climate change, mental illness, family issues, and a myriad of other difficulties outside of “normal college life” have always impacted many of us. Yet, with a year and a half of COVID-19 and Zoom behind us, such challenges have been exacerbated almost beyond endurance.
As we become caught up in the minutiae of classes and dorm life, however, we push away the broader threats to our existence that are catapulting us towards our own destruction. We stop short of acknowledging the mind-numbing terror of everything that makes the world feel as if it is falling apart, touting this semester the beginning of a “return to normal.” We do not talk much about the devastating fires and drought in the West or the ferocious floods and hurricanes in the East that, without a doubt, took some of our family, friends, and homes from us — or about the reality that climate change will only worsen and requires drastic, international action from our reluctant governments. We do not talk much about the atrocities occurring in Afghanistan and about the U.S.’s complicity in war crimes and failure to protect those who dared to stand up for their rights, despite the magnitude of the human rights crisis and the fact that some of us likely have loved ones in Afghanistan. We do not talk much about the police brutality that continues every day throughout America. We talk more about COVID-19, but we tend not to acknowledge the depths of emotional and physical turmoil the pandemic has wrought upon us, hurts that go beyond the isolation of Zoom — the fact that some of us have lost family members, friends, mental stability, the very structure of our lives. We cannot afford to not talk about these things, because the only thing worse than experiencing them is to experience them alone and in silence.
This editorial is not meant to be a doomsday article, although it certainly is gloomy enough for several funerals. It is meant to remind us all — students, faculty, staff, alums — that we need to support one another and understand that we are all facing far more than our next problem set; we are facing existential crises that we have a responsibility to be aware of and to discuss as we cope with them together. The reality is that life is not normal and will probably never return to what we think of or hope to be “normal.” This is not to say that we always need to be pondering the vast problems threatening humanity. Of course we need to take care of ourselves, have fun with friends, and relax. Still, we need to recognize that we are not all “fine,” that we do not all have the mental space to cope all the time, and that we are part of this flawed world as well as a part of our small campus in this corner of Pennsylvania.
So what does it look like for us as a community to engage with these terrors and tragedies that are so much bigger than our lives at Swarthmore? Maybe it means we discuss our fears about climate change with our friends rather than simply moaning about the heat wave and saying, “Climate change sucks.” Maybe it means a professor assigns a bit less reading, recognizing that everyone’s mind is occupied with double the usual worries and fears — and maybe some class time is spent instead on open discussion about those fears. Maybe it means that we have more collections, or other venues where we can express our anger and terror and depression and maybe offer each other a bit of hope and connection in exchange. It definitely means we shouldn’t only deal with the failures of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East in political science courses, or only discuss environmental racism in an environmental studies course. It means we acknowledge that it’s quite a challenge to go to class and study for our future when that future is so uncertain. It means we can understand “having a bad week” to encompass “general despair about the state of the world” as well as “I have too much homework and extracurricular commitments.” It means everyone needs to be able to access C.A.P.S. easily and to have someone to whom they can vent their emotions. It’s been a long time since our lives were any semblance of “normal,” and though we might each be privately bearing the weight of the world on our shoulders, it may help to acknowledge that we are each carrying such burdens.
We are all to some extent feeling fear and anxiety and pain right now, because Swarthmore is part of a world that is “going through a rough patch” in the way that the Titanic had a “little accident.” We need to stop pretending there’s a bubble, because that illusion is only good for isolating us from one another.