March 17, 2022

BARAN | Letters to the Writing on the Wall #2

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My favorite study spot is a cozy nook on the fourth floor of Uris Library. It has fantastic views of Ho Plaza, the Slope and Cayuga Lake. It’s a good place to study. But try as I might to work efficiently and without distraction, my eyes drift to the left of the desk, drawn by the writing on the wall. The white brick wall is festooned with chicken scratch, symbols and all other manners of writing, scrawled in utensils of every variety. There are obscene jokes and gibberish, inspirational messages and echoes of crushed dreams. The white wall is the hidden page in every Cornell yearbook — it’s been there since the wall was last painted over, and it will remain until it’s painted over again.

This article is the second in a series of letters I will write to these anonymous Cornellians. They probably didn’t intend for their messages to appear in a newspaper. They also likely didn’t realize their messages would be important to a guy sitting in the same place they once did. But here we are. 

“Four years at Cornell and I didn’t make a single friend. I just wish things were easier. I wish everyone were more accepting. I didn’t ask to be alone. And I don’t want to be sad anymore.”

Dear Anonymous Cornellian: 

Yours was the first quote I noticed on the wall. It was the reason I decided to write this series of letters in the first place. It’s heartbreaking to imagine you suffering through four years at Cornell alone, and there is nothing I can say here to ease your pain. I’m sorry. 

I like to imagine Cornell as a haven for every type of person. As a senior who’s settled into a comfortable routine here, I look around and see a niche for everyone. 

Clearly, I’m projecting. You are the proof. You are someone who Cornell has failed. You slipped between the emails and posters advertising inclusivity and community. Somehow, the Cornell ideals of friendship and togetherness missed their mark with you.

But Cornell as a whole is not to blame. Society tends to blame the nebulous powers-that-be for things that go wrong. Many of my close friends and family members are obsessed with criticizing the government. Students here criticize Cornell at a near-manic frequency. Sometimes these types of critiques are justified. 

But Cornell isn’t the one who passed you in the hallway without a smile. Cornell isn’t the one who saw you sitting alone in the dining hall and brushed by to join the same people they’ve eaten with dozens of times before. Cornell isn’t the one who talked about a party in front of you in the lounge without inviting you. 

No, Cornell didn’t make you feel alone during your four years here. Your peers did that. Generally, Cornell is a welcoming place. Most people here are kind and almost everyone finds a community, big or small. But some don’t. That fact is a direct result of the plague of selective empathy in the Cornell community. And I certainly shouldn’t be throwing stones. 

Selective empathy results when people care more about certain groups or individuals that share their attributes compared to those that don’t. It can cause otherwise kind people to be incredibly cruel. Selective empathy is part of the reason phenomena like implicit racism and bullying are so rampant. When we see someone sitting alone, our mind can shield us from empathizing with them by telling us that they are somehow different, thus avoiding the actual physical pain that results from empathizing with individuals in distress. 

My mother, after whom I model my own character, has always told me that developing kindness and empathy should take precedence over building any other traits. We shouldn’t work to be the funniest, strongest, or most stoic person in the room. We should try to be the most loving and caring. If that were the standard, universal empathy would more often triumph over selective empathy and people like you would not fall by the wayside. 

You don’t deserve to be alone. Not here, or anywhere. You didn’t deserve to sit in the Uris stacks after four long years, looking at a wall as if it were the last place to turn to express your pain. You didn’t deserve to feel the need to permanently paint your grief onto the Uris bricks in thick, black marker. 

These words may mean little to you. But hopefully, they mean something to just a couple people here at Cornell, sitting in Zeus or in Libe Café reading a discarded copy of today’s paper. Hopefully, those people will get up, walk outside and smile at the nervous-looking student on the Arts Quad. Hopefully, those people will go to dinner that night, or next week, or next month, and plop down next to the kid sitting alone. Hopefully, one senior, sitting in Uris in a couple of years, won’t have to etch the same words that you did on the wall. 


A Reader of Your Writing on the Wall

Christian Baran is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]Honestly runs every other Friday this semester.