April 29, 2022

BARAN | Letters to the Writing on the Wall #4

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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 last in a series of letters I’ve written 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. 

“I don’t want to disappoint her. I’m just so shit at being a good person.”

Dear Anonymous Cornellian, 

This is my last letter to the writing on the wall. I didn’t get a chance to write to all of you who scrawled your dreams and agonies on my little carrel in Uris Library. But I want to recognize that all of you have stories. Cornell remembers. 

Before I decided to write about your quote, scrawled in pencil below the window, I scribbled out an outline for a different letter to another Cornellian who wrote: “In the darkest times, hope is something we give ourselves. That is the meaning of inner strength.” It was going to be a good column, but it felt superficial and cliché. Something kept drawing me back to what you wrote. I was nervous to write this letter to you, because what you said is raw. I thought readers might interpret this as me writing about a woman in my own life, that my letter might be seen as a proxy for a letter meant for someone else. But my four years at The Sun will end in two weeks, and I need to write raw before I leave. 

So I thought about your quote, and what you may have been feeling. I imagine that you were feeling inadequate, that you thought you kept screwing up. I also think that you were probably in love with this girl. Maybe you still are. 

Despite your perception of yourself at the time, the fact that you spent time alone acknowledging your own inadequacies, unprompted, makes me respect you. It’s easy to be performative in acknowledgment of our failures. Telling your mother or your TA that you’ll do better next time is different than sitting alone in your room, pondering what went wrong and pledging to truly improve. I respect certain qualities in all of my friends. I respect Wyatt for his generosity, Trevor for his curiosity, Zach for his honesty and Leigh for her steadiness. The quality I look up to most, though, is a genuine desire to be a better person. 

All of us fuck up. We say bad things to people we care about, we choose the easy road, we disappoint our loved ones. If you claim to have never done those things, I don’t believe you. But it’s impossible to fuck up the task of striving to be a better person. 

The difficulty comes in defining what it means to be a good person. Does it mean being completely altruistic, or brutally honest? Does it mean ignoring the faults in your friend, or being honest with them about how they can improve? Does it mean helping your brother cheat on an exam because he’s in dire academic straits, or abandoning him to let him figure it out by himself, and hopefully learn in the process? Does it mean devoting your time to grassroots social service, or focusing on your career so you can eventually help others from a position of power? 

The truth is, we’re all a little bit misguided. I constantly struggle with making the correct choices for myself. We all have slightly different conceptions of what it means to do right by ourselves and our loved ones. As long as we don’t ignore those perceptions and we let our ideas about what’s right guide our actions, we are good. 

Sincerely,

A Reader of the 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.