May 6, 2014

GUEST ROOM: Smile, Cornell University

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By KEREN BITAN

This is not some mushy, mildly uplifting but also partially (mostly?) annoying piece about the things you have to be grateful for. It’s not about some super abstract notions or my knowing more than you about how to be happy. It’s about a very mundane reality that we are all swimming in, and how we feel about this reality. It’s about the community of extremely accomplished type-A personalities, seriously down-to-earth no-shoebies, guys who talk too loudly about weekend escapades, girls who think spandex are pants (guilty) and professors who forgot about spring break. We’re all implicated in this community, guys, gang’s all here.

We’re stressed because we have a prelim and paper due the same day (first world problem, but still) or we just broke up or maybe something more serious like a family member’s illness, our own mental health, the future, etc. We’re busy and moving fast and going somewhere important. We’re sick of waiting at CTB or annoyed Mann doesn’t take any ID besides our student ID and we really need to check out headphones to drown out the people who don’t seem to realize this is a library.  Or we are those people who don’t care it’s a library because we need to find out what happened last night and why she was crying. Anyway, we don’t have time.

So we move through our day rushing. We focus on the schedule we’ve created for ourselves, the chunks of time carved out to study, eat, play, dance, sleep, participate in club X or team Y. Then, somebody you’ve never seen before happens to catch your eye on the morning trek through the engineering quad, when it’s raining sideways and your umbrella just doesn’t cut it, and they smile. Eyes crinkle, head tilts, suddenly a ray of full-throttle honest happiness is beaming in your direction.

There’s some solid science supporting the idea that spending time smiling increases serotonin released in your brain, making you happier. What about receiving a smile? Here’s where it would be easy to jump off the deep end, and turn into a gooey diatribe. I won’t quite do that, because I said I wouldn’t, and because I’m not sure it would help.

I am, however, going to unload some first-hand knowledge after four years of Cornell. Every person I’ve talked to about campus culture has mentioned an unfriendly vibe. People spanning from those involved in Co-op housing and the Greek system to various sports teams and sustainability, debate or acappella groups, from professors and café staff members to Ithaca residents, you name it, they’ve mentioned this attitude. What is important to note here is the person who mentioned the aloof campus tendency is likely the same girl who you made eye contact with, wished might smile and didn’t. There’s a nonsensical “us and them” mentality, going on: “We’re friendly people!” and “They are rude!” If 90 percent of people feel others aren’t friendly, then who are “other people?” The 10 percent? Are they so pervasive that they are affecting the whole culture? I highly doubt it.

Here’s the deal: We all want some positive interactions with strangers. We all want random support in the form of acknowledgement of our existence. Maybe a full-blown smile isn’t your style, maybe you’d rather just nod. Suddenly, we’re nodding at each other. Suddenly, we are busy, rushing, stressed, not wearing pants, but we’re doing it TOGETHER. We are acknowledging our community. We are walking uphill both ways (insert more Ithaca clichés), and we’re doing it with some social graces and caring.

And I know we’re extremely stressed. But this is pretty important, because it’s about the potential monotony of our existence, something we all must face at some point. The reality is we will have to walk to class anyway, every day, and we get a choice about how to get there. Take a break from looking down at the well trodden, snow-covered pavement and maybe just one time, through the 20 mile-per-hour winds and horizontal sleet, look up and smile, Cornell University, at the freshman struggling up the hill — he’s practically you.

Keren Bitan is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at knb47@cornell.edu. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.

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