Wednesday, March 26, 2014

O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Courtesy of Santi Slade
For the first time in what feels like forever, I had a real conversation with my brother. His name is Nick, he is a freshman at UCLA and he is just over a year younger than me, though you would not think it if you put the two of us back-to-back. By that, I mean he frequents the gym a lot, and it is there, back home, where he would advise me on what exercise to do and  precisely how to do it. He makes a great trainer, and I thank him for helping his little older brother, but in our house or driving around, at dinner or just lazing about with nothing better to do, I sensed a distance between the two of us.

So it was a pleasure to call him Wednesday evening, after missing two of his calls, and hear nothing about video games, money or fitness — our go-to topics for half-hearted discussion over the last few years. Instead, he could hardly contain his excitement as he ran through everything that’s lately been on his mind: student government, campus activism, careers and the Westboro Baptist Church. Regarding that last one: Apparently members protested near UCLA a few days prior, brandishing their infamous “God Hates Fags” signs. I told him to save his bile for evils less fringe and trollish than that dinosaur, but I knew his head was in the right place.

Nick is starting to look at the bigger picture. It took me until second semester freshman year to do the same, to see college as a means not only to read books, have fun or get a good job but to change: First internally and then, you hope, out in the open. I never thought I’d talk divestment, the Israel-Palestine conflict and diversity in college admissions with my brother, but there he was, chewing through these issues and more with a passion that tells me further research and even action await in his future. In all likelihood, he will best my knowledge on these subjects, regardless of whether they are tied to his college curriculum or not. That is what is special about this kind of awakening: Important questions, regarding geopolitics, racism, faith and so on, leave the classroom and colonize your downtime, breeding lifelong pursuits and realigning your priorities.

I have used this line before, and I’m sure I stole it from somewhere, but the way I see it, you go to college to become a person. Sure, you may have scored a 2400 on the SATs and led your debate team to the championships and wrote a tear-jerking college essay that, together, proved to an Ivy League admissions office how much of a hot commodity you are. But the real test comes after, away from parents, class rankings and other ruthless motivators. In fact, college offers so many avenues for distraction that it can undo all that high school overachieving, which may not be a bad thing for some. For the rest of us, however, bridging the obligation (studying, worksheets, etc.) with the distraction (music, writing, activism, etc.) becomes the newest and mind-blowing possibility.

I realize now how little I thought before. Maybe I was also a little happier, on the whole, back then — me in my ignorance. Then one day, months into the college experience, away from home and immersed in ideas that I didn’t totally understand, I came to a deflating realization: I do not matter. I was taking an astronomy course at the time, so the verdict may have been closer to “None of this matters.” If we keep this to comprehensible earthbound terms, the ramifications are the same: All those superlatives on your transcript amount to nothing in the grand scheme of things. It’s a rather depressing subject of consideration and it will always be, since once that internal switch turns on it cannot be turned off.

The only viable response to that humbling epiphany is as follows: But I want to matter! Whether you scream it aloud or never summon those exact words, therein lies the reason you get excited at anything more substantial than ice cream, from here on out. You think humanitarianism motivates fracking protesters or U.S. presidents? It does, of course, but so does reputation, self-importance, ego. We are too narcissistic a species to base our lives solely on the needs of others, and anyone trying to do good, by writing some preposterous novel or building the most efficient solar panel, knows this, deep down.

My brother is coming to grips with the effort, fueled from within, it will take to realize his dreams in life. His idealistic, go-getter oratory spells a future politician, entrepreneur or physician. Whatever path he chooses, he will outearn me, that’s for sure. I look forward to being there as witness and, now, confidante.

This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location here.

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