This semester, I’ve paid more attention to the campus goings-on from abroad than I ever did while on campus. And boy, has it been a rollercoaster of a news cycle. First there was a minor student rebellion over the College of Business, followed by a fraternity scandal, issues with need-based financial aid, a tuition hike, a drug bust — Cornell has certainly not been boring. Not to mention the raised political tension brought on by the Shakespearian comedy that is this year’s presidential election and, of course, the untimely passing of President Elizabeth Garrett. It seems that Ithaca is coming through on little but the recent strain of good weather.
The student and faculty response to President Garrett’s death has been overwhelming and exceedingly interesting. Few of us knew her; she served for such a short time that few got the chance to meet her. Yet for someone whom a good majority of the students were largely unfamiliar with owing to her short time with us, the campus response has been a wonderful testament to her influence. The scale of the reaction initially surprised me, because she was so new to our campus. But I think that the heartfelt response to her passing was ultimately less of a personal sorrow and more of a tribute to Cornell itself and what it means to all of us, collectively. We love Cornell University. And when you love something, you mourn when it mourns. You rejoice when it succeeds, you hurt when it hurts and you smile when it is lifted up. We love this school, and Elizabeth Garrett was a part of it.
For many, the president’s death was a reminder that life is very short. For me, this was a reminder that life will offer us the chance to be vulnerable, and with great courage we can take that chance. Like all things that are inherently scary, vulnerability offers some cool rewards, among them the ability to live honestly and think critically about your own life. A few examples:
For me, it’s pretty hard to be vulnerable in writing. There is a sort of constant state of cognitive dissonance that I seem to live in — wanting desperately to write something that is relatable to the human experience and will connect with an audience but also fearing coming off as cliché. It seems that the price of original thought is often lack of mainstream success, and common themes are safe topics. The challenge is to be true to your thoughts no matter how vulnerable it makes you (or how stupid it makes you seem), and the reward is the respect that comes with obvious honesty.
It’s pretty hard to be vulnerable with controversial topics like race and sexuality. Even when you want desperately to empathize, you can never fully understand the challenges that others face. It seems that as many steps as society takes towards progress, there will always be a gap between those wronged and those outside the problem looking in. The challenge here is to allow yourself to own your biases, and the reward is an understanding of perspectives outside your own.
It’s pretty hard to be vulnerable in forming friendships. Sometimes it seems like humans want desperately to really know those around them while simultaneously shielding themselves from being known. It’s a funny paradox in that everyone goes around protecting their true identities, just missing each other like opposite ends of a magnet. The challenge here is to open up to people, and the reward is usually a series of lasting relationships.
These are simplified examples of the broader vulnerability of life, but the instinct to shy away from vulnerability is easily understood. Because what is this particular brand of self-sabotage, if not distinctly human? I know it seems kind of odd that the untimely death of Cornell’s first woman president would make me think about living my life with more vulnerability in the time that I have. But in reality, the scandal and sadness of the past semester, President Garrett’s passing included, has tested the vulnerability of the entire university and its students, shaken our foundations and shifted the mood of our campus. I think the lesson here is that vulnerability isn’t a bad thing, but a catalyst for self-reflection, honesty and change. And that, I believe, is the positive outlook on what has been a tumultuous and tragic couple of months for our school.
Ruth Weissmann is a junior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. A Word to the Weiss appears alternate Fridays this semester.