Editor’s Column: Zweckerstellung

Max Goldenberg, Commentary Editor

There’s a weird belief in American culture that has somehow managed to infect most of the first world—that life is linear. You get to have some fun as a kid, and then you get into middle or high school and the race starts to get the grades for a good college. And the very second you get that letter of acceptance, the race changes to get the internships and the grades for a good job, you get your job so you can support a family and have kids so they can support you when you retire, at the ripe old age of sixty or seventy, and then you get a few years to do the things you love on pension when you’re too old and decrepit to actually do them.

This is where, I’m sure, you expect me to tell you to take a moment to smell the flowers and breathe at Colgate, one of the most cliché pieces in the American lexicon. But unlike most clichés, it isn’t cliché because too many people believe in it; it’s repeated so often because nobody actually does it.

How many times have you heard to stop obsessing over the details of your future life that might one day be through getting the perfect details on your term papers and essays? How many times have you ignored it, or even worse, superficially accepted the idea and spent a day with your friends before returning to obsessing tomorrow? This is a lifeless piece of paper with an opinion written on it, so I can’t judge you; be honest with yourself. If the number is uncomfortably high, then it should be, because our entire culture is built around production. Your values as an American, and more potently as a human being, are tied inherently to how much you can produce. Those who can’t or won’t produce enough starve, so it’s unsurprising that we take advice to stop obsessing over essays in one ear and out the other. If we took them to heart, we’d probably die. That’s how life is.

That doesn’t mean it’s how life should be. To be clear, I’m not advocating for hedonism. Lord knows there’s enough drinking and sex at Colgate already, and it doesn’t seem to be making us any happier. At best, marijuana-fueled hazes provide a temporary distraction from the crushing reality of midterms and 20-page research papers due next week, not a serious alternative. What I’m asking you to do is to seriously evaluate why you’re at Colgate. What are you really doing here? Sure, you’re here to get a major, maybe so you can get a job that pays well, maybe so you can satisfy your parents. But that’s not why you’re really here. When you graduate some time in the future, for a far-flung job so you can make enough money and gather the social prestige you’re expected to obtain as a citizen of a prestigious northeastern university. You’re assuming that one day it’ll be enough. One day the race will be over. One day you’ll be happy.

The uncomfortable truth is that it’s never enough.

When you start down the path of material goals, enough is never enough. It’s like alcoholism; your body builds up a tolerance to success. Your great grades in high school didn’t make you happy; attending a most prestigious university didn’t; getting an internship at a high-end firm almost certainly didn’t either.Yet you still assume that at some point, if you’re sitting atop the executive branch of a Fortune 500 firm or sitting in a mansion, that you’ll feel happy and fulfilled.

The idea that meaning comes from success, to put it bluntly, is a lie. It’s one you, and all the rest of us, have been told all our lives, riding on the coattails of baby boomers, who found a brief period of hedonistic glee in stripping the planet bare of resources and opportunity. That’s a bandaid that’s going to be far less painful to rip off now than it will be 30 years from now, if you’re left feeling suffocated by a position middle-managing a firm or interest group while the tenants of capital society collapse underneath your feet. Meaning, fulfillment—it’s not something that falls into your lap when you achieve enough, when you’ve done enough. The Dasein, the essence of being, is something you snatch from the jaws of life by your own volition, something that’s impossible to gain any other way. All that sappy BS about acting legitimately with your friends and living life “to the fullest” isn’t BS; it’s just that we don’t want to believe it.

People say that they’re interested in finding themselves and their passions and who they really are, but they rarely pursue those passions in the end. And that’s because passions aren’t simply “found.” They aren’t something that falls into your lap like a soulmate, something that’s determined by God at birth as an ultimate and final intrinsic purpose. They’re something that’s created, actively, by yourself and for yourself. You won’t “find” your passion, no matter how many classes you attend blankly or money you make; you’ll only gain one when you start actively taking interest in something and sticking your neck out so far it’s uncomfortable.

What, then, am I actually telling you to do? Well, ultimately, that’s for you to decide, not me. But if you’re actively questioning the values and assumptions that led you to enter into a prestigious and important college in the Ivy League, then I’d refer you to the title of this article. This isn’t some halfhearted concern about living, laughing and loving or some other trite aphorism. When I say you should drop out of Colgate, I really mean it, and that’s not an insult to you. Become a roadside bohemian with a bible and a copy of Nietzsche— learn to use the observatory’s view in a way it’s never been used—start writing poetry about the feel of a tongue. There is no alternative.