September 22, 2015

YU | Vulnerable, Yet Not Alone

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By CHARLES YU

We’ve stigmatized the concept of “vulnerability,” and as a consequence, we have cast it as a mentally unwanted state among all other psychological ailments and malicious states of being. Ingrained in our speech and in our culture, it’s become a pejorative for weakness. We dread cracking and letting our inner fears and insecurities reveal themselves, and so despite the tumultuous chaos we may feel inside, we outwardly guise ourselves with calm demeanors and cheery smiles. Vulnerability is a familiar notion that we’ve all experienced before, but it is a constant and particularly resonating feeling for a certain population on campus: new college freshmen.

As a member of the Class of 2019 and a Cornell University student of just 31 days, I can attest to this claim. Don’t get me wrong — I’ve cherished and enjoyed every moment spent so far at Cornell, but my first few days here cannot be better described than as being a constant bombardment of insecurity. Anxious thoughts about getting along with my roommates, homesickness and making new friends were at all times in the back of my mind. Thoughts like, “If I screw this up, I’ll be screwed for the next four years of my life.”

Yet for all the distress I felt, I’ve found that vulnerability is not just a demonizing Pandora’s box of fear. Rather, it’s the act of worrying that makes you act out on your fears. It’s a lubricant for change. And so I quelled my fears of not meeting people by reaching out to literally everyone I met: shaking hands with those sitting next to me in lecture, chatting up random strangers in dining halls and getting every number of those whom I felt a connection with.

However, as I began to find my way and connect with others, I realized it wasn’t just me who was vulnerable. It’s a feeling felt by all of the 3,000 or so new faces on campus, whose combined vulnerabilities have created something beautiful: A community in which you can literally extend a hand to anyone you meet, anywhere, anytime and possibly forge a new friendship. One in which you can leave your door wide open so that a delightful stranger might drop by and make small talk with you.

And how is this possible? Because it’s from feeling this vulnerability and recognizing it in others that stems something even more powerful — empathy. If there’s one thing that I share with every other member of the Class of 2019 (aside from the fact that we all attend Cornell), it’s that we’re all a little bit lost and we’re all looking to find our way. We’re all in the same boat and when we see other’s discomforts, we let our own guards down in hopes that someone will do to you as you have done for them.

From what I’ve seen in action, it’s empathy that’s led not one, but four people to help carry a blacked-out and vomiting stranger from Collegetown to North, and another three to join in helping him back to his room and getting him situated for the night. It’s this same empathy that allows someone to recognize a sad face sitting alone in a hallway and comfort her by giving her a cup of instant noodles and some company. It’s empathy that has broken down the personal barricades of the 60 strangers on my floor and rebuilt not just a community, but a family in under 31 days.

If there’s one valuable thing that Cornell has taught me already, it’s that vulnerability isn’t something to hide; it should be celebrated. It is a nuisance that afflicts each and every person. Accepting that you are indeed vulnerable is not a sign of weakness. Coming to terms with your own insecurities and recognizing those of others is the first step toward becoming a more empathetic person.

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