So It Goes: A Note on Compassion
Issue   |   Wed, 09/27/2017 - 00:09

At Amherst — where exceptional students are met with exceptionally high expectations — the work we do is often endless and the pressures we face can become overwhelming. Stress becomes a neutral state of being as sleep slips away at the hands of problem sets, papers and club meetings. The times when we can be alone and free of preoccupation, when we can be still, become a rarity. Moments of introspection and reflection can be few and far between.

Sometimes, when stress gets out of hand, we might think to ourselves, “Why in the world did I sign up for this?” This question, however facetious, merits serious consideration. Why are we here? Many factors come into play in college decisions: opportunity, good fit, financial aid, family pressures. Reflecting on how and why we’re at Amherst can be grounding and can reintroduce us to our own capabilities that led us here when everything becomes overwhelming and we feel misplaced. I find that this question is one that I ask myself often and one that I think critically about when I stumble upon those rare moments of reflection.

Amherst was not my first choice when I was applying to colleges; I can’t even tell you what my Amherst essay was about. My sights were set elsewhere: University of Chicago. I could tell you exactly what my UChicago essays were about, having spent hours trying to craft the best ones that I could. I submitted my early application in November. That December I was deferred, and in March I was placed on the waitlist, each decision making me feel inadequate and rejected. Finally, in May, I found out that there would not be a spot for me at the university. However, that moment was different than the previous two, because at that point I already knew I would be attending Amherst College in the fall, and my excitement repelled any ill feelings.

I had made my decision to attend Amherst after visiting campus during Admitted Students Weekend in April, where I not only fell in love with the school, but fell in love with the people. Everyone I met was warm, genuine and had a real interest in me as a person. I put immense value in being at a school surrounded by those kinds of people, so I committed. Now I’m here and I’m thankful. I’ve found that my initial impression of the students, faculty and staff here has held true, and the friends and peers I’m lucky enough to know here have helped me feel supported, loved and at home. When I imagine life at another institution, what often draws me back to Amherst is realizing that I wouldn’t know any of the people I know now. An incredible network of support keeps me afloat through the rigor of Amherst and shows me that this is the place I should be. I wish I could have offered this reassurance to my former self when I got that first message from UChicago; it would have been comforting to know that things would work out just fine. If I could, I would have told myself, “So it goes.”

This phrase — “So it goes” — comes from Kurt Vonnegut’s novel “Slaughterhouse-Five,” where the sardonic phrase appears each time someone dies. However, the meaning I draw from it is less about grappling with mortality and more a way to understand life. Its central philosophy is that the universe is apathetic — with “the universe” being distinct from various religious figures that some folks would consider empathetic according to their beliefs. The universe does not possess the empathy or scorn to create good and bad; it simply persists. So it goes. The capacity to create joy, bitterness, disdain and love rests within the individual — an immense power to affect ourselves, impact others and shape the experiences we share when interacting with the world. Thus, the balance of positivity and negativity is dependent on our individual actions, on how we treat others and respond to challenges that we cannot control. That is why approaching life with compassion is so important. Through compassion — not just toward others, but toward the world and yourself as well — community is built, bonds are formed and positivity is diffused across an otherwise apathetic universe.

This is the compassion I find at Amherst: a community of people who care deeply about one another. Kindness and love go an incredible distance in uplifting oneself and others, especially in the toxic, damaging and unjust political and social environment we find ourselves in today. Communities can thrive when they’re built on compassion. Since the universe does not nurture community, we must. Since the universe cannot be compassionate or kind, we must be in its place for each other.

In this way, the phrase “So it goes” represents our capacity and responsibility for forming the compassion that the universe lacks. There is, however, a possible presumption about the meaning of this saying. As it relates to systems of oppression, I hope not to conflate “so it goes” with complicity. Rather, the phrase symbolizes the resilience and resolve of the people who rise in the face of oppression: queer, trans and nonbinary folks, people of color, women, people with disabilities, low income families and anyone who holds marginalized identities. “So it goes” is both an expression of the structures of inequity that need to be upended — a representation of the unjust status quo — and a reminder of the fortitude and strength of the people on whose shoulders those structures are fastened. Rather than symbolizing resignation to oppression, “So it goes” symbolizes the work to be done and the determination of the people fighting and doing that work. Perhaps, in regard to the latter, a more apt phrase is “So they go.” So we go.

Finally, “So it goes” means that it’s human to make mistakes; that sometimes a good decision is better than worrying about making the best decision; that life goes on. I actually won’t know if Amherst was the best place for me, but it doesn’t matter. Maybe I could have been happy at UChicago, but I’m here, and so I will do my best and make the most of my time here and thrive off the compassion of my friends which I hope to return. Maybe life would be different, or even better, elsewhere. But that’s none of my concern, because I am content here, in this community. I’m at home. Whether I chose the best home is moot, because if I didn’t — well, so it goes.