Jiddu Krishnamurthy was a prominent figure in eastern Indian wisdom throughout the 20th century. He believes everything, including all life, is interconnected. He would likely recoil at “eastern Indian wisdom” because it demarcates specific arbitrary groups. “Eastern,” “Indian” and the like. Social psychology tells us that as an in-group becomes more mobilized and tight-knit, the atmosphere is increasingly ripe for conflict with out-groups — individuals seek out similarities and in turn segregate differences. There develops a profound lack of motivation to find common ground with others because such commonalities would only weaken the strength of the groups we hold so close to our identities.
It’s clear what I’m getting at. The “talk to people who aren’t like you” advice has made the rounds, including in one of my past columns. Even the point of its overuse has been recently addressed in Jacqueline Groskaufmanis’ The Dissent. However, I’m mostly interested in something deeper upon which the message touches, the forces that prevent it and how a concept associated with mental wellness could prove useful in fostering not only personal but also societal well-being. The heart of Krishnamurthy’s teaching didn’t solely attack grouping, but rather, investigated the mechanisms with which we sorted ourselves into groups and as a result built walls between them. One is ambition. To foreshadow Krishnamurthy’s thoughts on ambition, he would also recoil at his being “a prominent figure.”
Ambition is something we know all too well at Cornell. I’m thoroughly middle-class, but I still experienced modest culture shock as a freshman. Cornell is a concentrated body of individuals, each filled with dreams of the meaningful lives they may lead with the help of an education most in the world couldn’t fathom. It is a world on its own, populated by ambitions run amok. This was both intoxicating and suffocating. I became enamored with my own possible future but also crippled under the standard of perfection and perpetual struggle we strive to meet as Cornellians. It’s not true that all Cornell students fall under this umbrella of affluence, but it’s certainly true that we’re all exposed to and influenced by it.
Excessive personal ambition diverts our motivation to be upstanding. It becomes a means to enter groups defined by prestige and notoriety rather than to express gratitude for and understanding of the privileges we’re already afforded. Specifically, the privilege that the jackpot we hit is the very thing we can use to assist and work with others who weren’t so lucky. Although both drives can inform public service, only the latter merges the world we’ve created at Cornell and the one outside Cornell, while the former separates them further. It’s a philosophy that will make our work more grounded, engaged and ultimately more impactful. Its absence is precisely why campus politics can easily distract us from the fact that our Ivy is housed in a city wracked with poverty that existed well before the presidential election.
A moment when our world felt more breached than ever came when President Trump was elected. I don’t agree at all with the criticisms that Cornell students needed to “toughen up” about it and dial down their reactions. Emotion ignites social progress. Most, but not all Cornell students, however, are not directly or newly affected by the policies President Trump has implemented so far. Many students had already feared “law and order” long before it became a Trump rally classic. Half faced pressures to “look like women” long before it was a Trump employment requirement. Our innermost emotions were drawn out because we, as a largely liberal student body, are disgusted with his victory’s assault on our ideals and values; the beliefs that structured the dreams we had for our communities, our country and ourselves collapsed into doubt.
A telling segment on Samantha Bee’s Full Frontal profiled the sheer emotional firepower of the anti-Trump movement, but also reminded us that emotion wasn’t nearly enough, that grit was needed for horsepower. Individuals at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement were interviewed, and they didn’t recall everlasting vitality, but patience and cooperation as they labored through mountains of paperwork and countless planning sessions that resulted in powerful shows of civil disobedience.
It is the grunt work that is essential; it keeps the fire burning and we need to do it alongside the people in the trenches if making a difference is really what we want. This sacrifice entails a smaller assertion of ourselves and a larger understanding of what our purpose is in a broader upheaval that uproots people beyond our university and has frankly registered little shock to our own realities. Fighting injustice is easier when we have the resources to intellectualize it. Others suffering a different scale of oppression have only the reserves to survive it.
Mindfulness is a nonjudgmental and clear-headed way of living and thinking, and I thought of it when I understood Krishnamurthy’s core instruction: to listen. Remove all assumptions, preconceptions and ambitions to hear the whole of your environment and learn the most from selfless experience. He encourages us to become students not just of our majors but of our own lives. This is a truly liberal and universally accessible education stretched to the limits of depth and breadth, illustrating the interconnected nature of our story — that the arc of history bends towards justice and perhaps a recognition of our individually minor yet collectively important role within that history is the key to finally reaching it.
Narayan Reddy is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. Reddy, Set, Go appears every other Monday this semester.