March 31, 2022

BARAN | Letters to the Writing on the Wall #3

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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 first in a series of letters I intend to 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. 

“So here’s the story — happiness lies in imperfection.”

Dear Anonymous Cornellian: 

Your quote made me think a lot about what might have inspired you to scrawl those words on the white bricks of Uris. Your words indicate to me that you had some sort of epiphany before you wrote them. Maybe you were going through a tough breakup or had failed at something important. Maybe you had just gotten your ass handed to you in an argument. Whatever it was, it inspired you to decide that an old trope held more meaning than you had previously thought. 

I recognize the tone of your writing because I’ve had similar epiphanies. My experiences produced a gut reaction of skepticism to your idea that happiness lies in imperfection. I believe that, eventually, we will always change our philosophies about life. No matter how sure we are in our ideas, there is always something that we’re not considering. My friends and family consider me a contrarian because I’m usually resistant to new ideas. At risk of sounding like a Luddite: don’t worry — I’m skeptical about all life philosophies. I’m not contrarian just for the sake of it; rather, I think that fundamentally, no single life philosophy does the trick for everyone. For example, although I’m a practicing Catholic, I recognize that the religion I was born into is arbitrary and certainly should not define the way I live my life. 

Every Cornell student has had dozens of epiphanies just like yours throughout their time here. I had one when I became a vegetarian. Yet, years later, I recognized an alternative logic that has made me comfortable with eating meat again. No idea is insulated against the tides of life experience. Similarly, our idea of happiness can change with a stroke of fate. 

I may be coming off as a bit judgmental. I don’t think your idea is wrong. I’m merely cautioning against being sure of your life philosophy of happiness. Right now, I am partial to the idea that happiness lies in the humble pursuit of perfection. My close friends and I take joy in making self-deprecating jokes while striving to live the ideals that we think are right. We’re happy now, but in 20 years, we may look back with a scornful smile on what we thought was true happiness. 

The definition of happiness is a nebulous one. We don’t always understand our feelings while we’re living them. For a long time, I thought that I had experienced romantic love. Now I’m starting to realize that I may have simply adjusted my definition of it to fit the circumstances I was in. With that epiphany — of which, of course, I am skeptical — I’ve started to question whether I’ve felt true happiness yet. 

I’ve come to the shaky conclusion that we probably won’t know true happiness when, and if, we feel it. We may catch a glimpse of it in hindsight, grab at it in the present moment or feel as though we’re always falling just short. But uncertainty lurks in every epiphany. 

In this way, your quote rings true to me. We may never be able to understand what defines true happiness for us. That uncertainty is the space between our circumstances and the storybook ideal of “true happiness.” That plumbless gap holds our desperate desires, our drive to succeed and our imperfections. Most importantly, it is rife with hope. And hope for happiness is all that we can ask for. With that, I’d like to offer you a quote of my own, taken from an Instagram post I came across a couple of weeks ago: “The happiest you’ve been is not the happiest you’ll be.”

Skeptically,

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.