I found myself in a curious position last Wednesday night, trying to finish a problem set assigned the first Tuesday and due the first Thursday that begged full competence in the three core courses that civil engineering seniors have endured since September. While failing to complete my last set of calculations, I began chatting with the friend who had come to work with me. At first I found myself listening only halfheartedly, I am ashamed to say, failing to give my undivided attention to the human being sitting across from me, even in the absence of the excuse that I was “hard at work.” Yet there I was.
Suddenly, my friend brought forth a point of resonance in our pasts, and I started listening intently. I realized I had reduced this person to a service that we rendered each other, and omitted, during all of those times that we just worked on problem sets together, that he was a completely independent person with his own history, concerns, and inspiring memories so similar to my own if only I would listen to him relate them.
For the next two hours, we conversed about how much we loved the outdoors. How shivering aspen leaves and shifting sands swell the catacombs of our memories far more than ephemeral sitcom episodes. How, when the steel pressure of urban life crushed our hearts, we’d call our friends at three on Friday and find ourselves on a trail to nowhere at seven.
“I’d have my backpack all packed in my closet, so that when I my phone rang, I could be in the truck in twenty minutes,” he recalled.
Expeditions across turquoise agave foothills and bedding down in the soft sand of an arroyo for a nap under creosote bushes are still the most vivid memories of my life. This person shared some of his: watching his eighty-five year old grandfather haul his canoe on his back in North Carolina, or leading wilderness tours near Big Sur with the waves assailing the cliffs, spraying mist to float above the redwoods like clouds. In December, my father also spoke of what it is that makes time in nature so unparalleled:
“Of course I love the mountains, but the reason why I love the desert so much is this: If you get far enough out in the lowlands, when the wind dies down, you can hear the blood rushing in your veins.”
For so much of our lives, we take for granted even the most fundamental, foundational bodily function: the heartbeat that keeps us alive. It is a service rendered by an abstract concept that we can’t even properly call an organ, unless we’re the cardiac surgeons who cut open chest cavities to try and keep them pumping. If we can’t value our own vital signs, it’s little wonder that humanity is so disconnected from the ecosystems upon which its continued existence is predicated.
Yesterday I had another excellent conversation with an old friend from home. We wondered why so many people in developed nations, at Stanford University, whose needs on the Maslow hierarchy are almost entirely met, are still not actually seeking self-actualization. Why, we wondered, are students at this university still so desperately obsessed with acquiring wealth when, comparatively, they already have so much? Why do we strive for the best job or internship at the most prestigious [insert institution here], but neglect to spend time questioning why we’re making $15K this summer in this industry, or why, exactly, we’re constructing a building on what used to be a wetland?
I hypothesized that it’s because we continue to see the cornerstones of our very existence as services to be rendered by an abstract actor. Not understanding, then, the method by which these basic needs are fulfilled, by janitors or fruit pickers whose names we don’t know, we think that it all boils down to money. In reality, you could be doing those things yourself. It’s why people at BOB will sit at a filthy table and eat food bought and prepared for them, then leave a mess because they’re convinced it’s somebody else’s job to clean up. It is why Housing’s trend toward sterile, isolating dorm environments is so sickening, and why the students in cooperative communities or even self-ops where the residents care enough to take care of it are crying out in outrage as wave after wave of R&DE assault erodes the spaces where they can actually remember where their food comes from. Where they can remember that their bathroom, come graduation, is their own mess. That the environment which humanity is systematically destroying is their own mess, too.
Here’s my challenge for the week: get far enough away from this place to listen to your heartbeat. And, while we’re talking about foundations, check out Stanford Labor Action Coalition and their living wage campaign.
Contact Taylor at email@example.com.