Scars. We all have them in some form or capacity. Perhaps they’re visible, on a face, a hand, a leg, or perhaps they hide within the notebook next to his bed or the necklace around her neck. Regardless of where, how, when they exist, it is the reality of their presence that is simple fact. And what is even simpler is how we decide to react.
Thanks to a member of the lacrosse team, I recently stumbled across a David Foster Wallace commencement address to Kenyon College, where he offers the following piece of advice. He says, “The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.” So often do we hear in the news of glorious and magnificent acts of heroism. Heartwarming indeed, and a reminder of the goodness of humanity, but in many ways, it almost makes the act of kindness too great for the everyday. I believe Wallace is correct in the recognition of not only the “unsexy” but also the repetition of the process.
In many ways, Williams gives us the perfect excuse to turn on autopilot. We have too much work, our practice ran late, we didn’t sleep last night, the person in front of us took too long picking out nacho toppings. They’re valid and reasonable excuses to refrain from engaging beyond the superficial “How are you?” but is that how we wish to exist? We push ourselves to analyze and think critically within our education, but in social settings it becomes too easy to fall into the default. I’m not talking about routines, the daily class schedule, practice for a cappella or athletics, I’m asking rather if we notice and question within these routines. Do we become frustrated by the girl who just took the last elliptical, or do we ask why she’s in a hurry? Perhaps it’s just because she’s a selfish jerk who thinks that she has way more work than we do and that her time is much more valuable. Or maybe she has to get back because she has to call her parents and see how her grandmother is doing in the hospital.
When I was younger, my mom told me a story about a girl in a grocery store. My uncle had just passed away from a fishing accident in Alaska, and the wound left by his death left a gaping hole in my mother. My mom had often visited a grocery store with my uncle, and the cashier was always friendly to both of them. Soon after my uncle died, however, my mom would buy groceries from a cashier who was particularly unfriendly, unlike normal. Of course this stranger couldn’t have known what had happened to my uncle, but she was stuck in the autopilot of absorption, which perhaps kept her from seeing my mother’s pain.
I do not blame the cashier because it can be difficult to take ourselves off our own track and reach out to others in everyday scenarios. But what the cashier could have done for my mother – offer a smile or perhaps a kind word – is something we can do for anyone. There is no exclusivity to kindness just as there is none to pain.
So here sits an opportunity for us. We can admirably choose to continue on the path of our successes, being great students, athletes, singers, actors and more. That’s why we we’re here at Williams, because we are extremely good at many things that we already know how to do. But too often we become so proud of those statistical, concrete accomplishments that we forget about the importance of recognition of others. Though this is a small school, we do not know what burdens others carry every day, but to reach out, we don’t have to. It is less about knowing and more about continuing to push our level of consciousness and understanding for those we interact with every day. It is maintaining kindness throughout our daily interactions that will make the difference. It is understanding that we are capable of making a difference to the person standing in front of us in line, however small it may be. I’m proud of Williams because I believe there are many of these moments, but we can always improve and we can always be more aware.
Alyssa Amos ’15 is an art studio and English double major from Bennington, Vt. She lives in Mills-Dennett.