January 22, 2013

LURIE-SPICER: It Takes a Community

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Over winter break, I had the privilege to travel alone for the first time. I spent three weeks running around Belize experiencing a number of different cultures. During that time, memories of the three days I spent in the Mayan village of San Miguel remain most vivid. By our economic standards, their community was in desperate need. Yet, I was surprised to meet some of the happiest people I have ever seen. They lived with so much less than we do. All of us have such great opportunities ahead of us, yet why do smiles seem so much less common here at Cornell? In San Miguel, the villagers are supported by a strong community. They give each other strength. Yet back on the Hill, we become too enraptured in our own studies to reach out and support our peers.

One of the women, Dolores, took me around the village to show me the various schools and churches. By our standards, these buildings were in poor condition. Even the new school, built five years ago, was having trouble standing up to the humidity. But the buildings provided shelter from the rain and sun and were still used widely. Art hung on the school doors to welcome the students. Churches had instruments inside that kept the attendees on their feet at night. Every place she showed me was rundown but ripe with life.Soon we passed the village river, used for bathing and cleaning. Hearing this knowledge ahead of time, I had pictured National Geographic images of depressed mothers bathing their children in murky waters. But as I walked down the treacherous path to the riverside in San Miguel, I was greeted by the laughter of children playing games as they took their morning bath. These people needed so little to be happy.To our right, we saw a house under construction. Like all the other houses, the materials were humble but the structure seemed sturdy. They had been building houses like this for generations. Thatched roofs were built with palm reeds and the floor was cool, packed dirt. A group of men were lashing the roof and house frames together. I asked where the labor comes from to build these houses. Dolores let out a laugh. “The labor comes from right here. Everyone who builds a house in San Miguel grew up here. They just ask for help from their friends, family and neighbors. The whole village helps out.”On our return trip back, we passed the river and I saw the children still playing with their dog, laughing as they played fetch with the dog and wrestled with each other. The village mothers stood along the edge of the water washing their family’s clothes. Again, I found myself wondering why these people are so happy. For a moment I doubted myself. Maybe I’m just on vacation. Maybe I’m just fabricating their happiness as a reflection of my own. But then I remembered how the neighbors came together to build the house. The elders taught about the medicinal plants and farming practices. The children make art for their schools and fill the village with laughter. These people are genuinely happy because they have all that they need — a community.Back on the Hill, I am reminded that we too have a community. We too learn from one another and build bonds that will last a lifetime. We too fill this school with art and fill the gorges with laughter. Yet our culture is incredibly individualistic. Some of us think we can make it on our own. Too often I have heard “it’s not my problem” when others express need. We become so engrossed in our own idea of success that we only value those who will help us achieve it. We riddle them with vacuous laughs and ephemeral smiles, sacrificing genuine connection for hope that we make the right friends in the right places.It is painful to see my peers selling themselves for such an elusive happiness that seems to recede the harder they try to grasp it. Yet in San Miguel, happiness was as omnipresent and easy to attain as the scent of the jungle. All of us at Cornell have great futures ahead of us and yet this does not seem to be a sustainable sources of happiness. Despite their poverty, the villagers I met gained their strength because of the sturdy community beneath them.  The Cornell organizations set up for our mental health play important roles on our campus, but we as individuals make up this community. It is up to us to make sure our peers have the support they need. Without this community, where else can we find a strength that will sustain us?

Tyler Lurie-Spicer is a sophomore in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. Feedback can be sent to opinion@cornellsun.com. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.

Original Author: Tyler Lurie-Spicer