On being a “non-essential person”
Stories from inside the college bubble
I was sitting in my apartment with a group of friends when the United States government shutdown. We responded to the news as follows.
Friend 1: “Do you think I’ll still have my midterm tomorrow?”
Friend 2: “This is huge, guys. This is only the second time this has happened in U.S. history. The last time was 1995.”
Friend 3: “These tweets are hilarious. Help me think of something clever, but not so clever you can tell I thought about it this much. Like clever, but in an effortless way. Screw it, I’ll just favorite everyone else’s tweets. Do you like my profile picture?”
Friend 4: “If the U.S. Postal Service shuts down, how will we get our rent check in on time?” [Author’s note: Rental office is one street over. Like most standard buildings, they have a mail slot.]
Friend 5: * proceeds to roll around kitchen on a Razr scooter *
Friend 6: “Are we out of Fritos?”
This series of interactions made two things abundantly clear to me.
1) College is little more than an insulated microcosm, where our tendency to view events and happenings as reflections of our personal needs shelters us from their greater implications.
2) We desperately needed to go grocery shopping. The Fritos were indeed gone.
The first conclusion was even more disconcerting than the second. Theoretically, colleges are incubators for enlightened discussion. Yet I couldn’t help but think: while our classes teach us to look outward, our lack of actual outside responsibility only pulls us back in. We claim no dependents, and thus ultimately serve no interests other than our own. We are “nonessential personnel.”
Now, that’s not to say college students are cold, calculating individuals operating on rationality alone. Rationality implies foresight, and one of our favorite games is “slap the bag.” Case in point.
No, we aren’t manipulative. We just tend to be a bit selfish — mostly because there are few consequences for acting any other way.
While the government falls to pieces with the grace and charm of a Lohan meltdown, my shielded existence remains intact. If I want to watch the “Wrecking Ball” music video 47 times in a row, I can. If I then proceed to scroll through “653 Cats Who Understand How You Feel about Fall” followed by “7,921 Animals Who are More Talented than Nicholas Cage,” that’s cool, too. Yes, I can vouch for this from personal experience. No, I am not proud. Yes, I will watch “What Does the Fox Say?” again.
Regardless, it’s safe to say on your typical night, Washington, D.C. feels very, very far away.
I don’t mean to lump everyone into this happy existence of general egoism. There are plenty of genuine NPR-type characters out there, working to stay informed for a cause other than their own. I discovered this firsthand during the summer. I was on a fraternity’s roof when I made the mistake of using my very sexy line about “feeling nervous about government involvement in Syria because historical precedent, like the United States’ Cold War involvement in Afghanistan, demonstrates our limited knowledge about the nature of sectarian violence abroad,” only to wake up to an email with a 12-page JSTOR article attached, titled “The Politics of Friendship” by Jacques Derrida.
It was all quite impressive — Derrida has a very extensive Wikipedia page, indicating he is in fact the real deal. It was also impressive I gave out both my school and personal email address on the roof of a fraternity house.
It’s comforting to think the convenience of self-centered apathy can be periodically balanced out by the likes of Friend 2 and roof boy. Yet much to my chagrin, their mindset is not my present reality. For all the suaveness of my line about Syria, I was Friend 3. I function in 140 characters, and only read up on the shutdown once FLOTUS stopped tweeting. Here’s hoping for her speedy return.
Julia’s column runs biweekly Thursdays. She can be reached at email@example.com.