When Spec came out with its article, “Columbia has an empathy problem” after our emails began to flood with news of the passing of our peers, my Contemporary Civilization (CC) professor gave us the kind of “radical tenderness” and “militant kindness” the article advises us to act by. And not because she spent the entire session talking to us, making sure all of us were doing okay. But because of the final presentation she assigned us—one that would force each of us to think and act on how to better our Columbia community through the lens of our CC readings.
In thinking about how I could make a positive impact on campus, I recall my experiences with an elderly long-term companion (LTC) in an assisted living facility. Every weekend, I spent four hours with him. When I’d knock on his door, I’d find him lying on his bed, expressionless, his blind eyes fixed on the ceiling. No family member visits or calls. No friends to support him. No staff or residents make him feel welcomed. His disability, depression, and loneliness had drained him of his will to live.
It was difficult to connect with him at first. What could a nineteen year old have in common with a seventy nine year old? Not much, except for the very thing we, as humans, all need. More love. Laughter. Compassion. And kindness.
All it took was my spending time with him, conversing and listening to him as he told great stories, for him to begin to smile more. Be more open to making friends. Have faith in himself and his life. It became clear that for him to feel happy and to feel his worth, all it took was to be surrounded by someone else who cared.
At Columbia, we are constantly surrounded by people, but so often feel by ourselves. And I think the author of the Spec article put it best when he/she/they stated that “a lot of us just don't give a shit about each other.” And I wonder about the difference we'd feel if we did actually care. If we made ourselves available and freed our time to talk to others. If we shared our stories and listened to theirs with empathy. If we smiled while making eye contact with a stranger rather than just blankly staring.
My LTC taught me to understand storytelling and narration as a powerful marker for human connection. And so as part of my final presentation, I approached students on Low Steps and asked them to answer one question: What defines you. Their unique answers come together in this video, which reaffirms: We are Columbia.