Over the Easter weekend, I heard this anecdote: One way to transport a chicken between villages is to bind their feet so they stay still. Once transported, and their binds undone, most chickens apparently fail to realize they are now free and need a little kick to start flying again.
In some ways, with recent announcements on vaccine distributions, the possibility of in-person learning come the Fall and in-person graduation ceremonies, we too, are chickens on the verge of freedom. But this “kick” has less to do with material realities as much as a change in attitude. Most of us have spent the past year in a monotonous silo that has lacked not just fullness of personal experience, but awareness of the experiences of others. While we continue to be careful in our actions, recent news will hopefully not only be an encouragement to retrieve everyday sensitivities we may have forgotten, but also to develop them more deeply.
Some of this numbness is the result of excess. I remember many of my semesters at Cornell were filled with attempts to maximize experiences: I took as many classes as I could and joined as many clubs as my schedule could fit. I don’t expect my specific brand of overenthusiastic frenzy to have been universal, but the belief that quantity determined the quality of my experiences ironically ended up restricting what I could take away from each one.
The intensification and segmenting of experiences into discrete units is perhaps most numbed in sense-based experiences like sex. We often understand sexual repression politically, and think its opposite is engaging in it freely and unrestrictedly. But, in some ways, restricting its sensations — pleasure, sensuality, intimacy — to this one context is its own form of repression.
Decades ago, as the growth of technology also standardized experiences on unprecedented scales, leftist thinkers foresaw this restriction of sensuality, and warned that making pleasure something to efficiently attain also makes it exploitable by more powerful forces in society. Less dramatically, this might make it harder to realize that the smallness we feel amidst nature has a lot in common with a deeply intimate connection with someone we love.
The loss of sensitivity that turns sensations and experiences into a set of predictable outputs translates politically, too. This is the apathy that ebbs and flows emotionally with the news cycle and other circumstantial factors. It is horrified by the Atlanta shooting, surprised by the Capitol car attack, gladdened by the warm weather, and excited to finally sign up for the vaccine beginning today. All of these are treated as sporadic one-off events, instead of manifestations of long-term, undercurrent phenomena.
The apparent opposite, committing to feeling both strongly and equally for everything at once, risks a different kind of insensitivity. A sign at a park off of Collegetown that reads “All Injustices are Crises” captures this sentiment. Every instance of injustice should be taken seriously, but this sentiment homogenizes not just their urgency, but our response to them in a way that can be disrespectful because we do not give each the full attention and patient understanding it deserves.
In contrast, hearing friends tell me how their growing-up years were impacted by fracking or attending underground churches has contextualized and made more proximate otherwise external events. At the very least it is a reminder that phenomena persist even when they fall out of public attention.
The sensitivity to individual cases applies not only to us, but to institutions like our university. Despite them taking different tones, both columnists Buonanno and Bettez resist a blanket legalism that focuses on missed COVID-tests, whether in wanting harsher penalties for more consequential causes like attending parties, or ensuring missing these tests are not exaggerated on our transcripts. Though the disruptiveness of removal from campus feels harsher than what I would agree with, and increased vaccinations may necessitate that any policy be more fluid than I have the administrative capacity to make recommendations on, a greater attentiveness to differences in individual cases would both be more fair as well as a reprieve in a relatively impersonal year.
Kristi Lim is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her column, What the Hell Is Water, runs every other Tuesday this semester.