The beginning of my senior year at Brown is not going according to plan. Growing up, and even as a first-year student, I looked up to college seniors as people who had everything figured out and were ready to transition seamlessly to adulthood. Though I imagine that’s an accurate description of some members of the Class of 2017, I’m not even sure of my course schedule this semester — and many of my classmates have echoed my uncertainty about the future. Some of my hesitation comes from within: Rather than helping me to narrow down my options, the courses and experiences to which I have been exposed as a Brown student have made it even more difficult to select a single pathway. But it seems that there’s also an external pressure at work, a general sense that the world into which we were born is dissolving and morphing into something new and terrifying.
I don’t think I’m being dramatic. Scrolling through my Facebook timeline is a reminder of just a fraction of the suffering the world endured this summer: the Orlando massacre, Brexit, terrorist attacks and an attempted coup d’etat in Turkey, the Nice tragedy. And these events occurred in the excruciating context of ongoing civil war in Syria, the refugee crisis in Europe, the interminably divisive U.S. presidential election (is it November yet?) and the acceleration of climate change. My friends regularly lament what a trying year 2016 has been. Indeed, it wouldn’t be a great shock to wake up one morning in the near future to the news that the sky is falling.
Of course, life hasn’t been especially easy for any generation. From our privileged perch in the developed world of the 21st-century, we can only imagine what it’s like to live through a full-fledged World War or a great famine or the Black Death. That our predecessors were acquainted with grief comes as no surprise, but the realization that we, too, may be burdened with a similar struggle has thrown me, and many others, for a loop. The myth of a species that is steadily and undeniably approaching a peaceful and prosperous endpoint has taken a serious blow in recent months. There is most certainly work to be done to advance the human condition on all fronts.
My goal in writing this column isn’t to pen a lofty convocation or commencement address, but rather to give myself a pep talk as I sit on the launchpad of my penultimate semester as an undergraduate and begin to count down from 10. Olympic athletes are masters of pep talks, and they were one of the brightest spots of inspiration for me this grueling summer. Of course, the Olympic Games are a deeply flawed institution marred by doping scandals, the unjust displacement of local residents and wasteful spending. In my mind, though, there is no disputing the achievements of the Olympians themselves, who captivate the world as they break records and, in so doing, push against the limits of human potential. I rolled my eyes during the opening ceremony as International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach gushed about his utopian vision of the Olympics uniting the world, but I couldn’t help celebrating the success of this most international of events that takes place as if by magic every four years. Once the cloud of dust that the Olympics churn up has settled, something luminous and pure is revealed: optimism. Maybe, in spite of the chaos that has become the new normal, we’re doing something right after all.
And perhaps the action demanded by recent upheaval is cause for hope. The economic, technological, medical and political progress of the past several decades has been astonishing, and it certainly hasn’t been erased by the trials and tribulations of this summer. As students and soon-to-be professionals, we can find purpose in the collective wounds that have been exposed as of late. Together we can tackle global warming, Zika and space exploration. We can attempt to resolve conflict and create a more equitable, harmonious society. And we can find beauty in a changing world and inspire others to do the same. Our Brown education isn’t (only) about a prestigious diploma but about seeking stability in meaningful work even as the earth shifts beneath our feet.
This semester, then, I’ll try to act more like an Olympian — and I don’t just mean that I’ll try to go to the gym more often, even though I desperately need to. Like an Olympian, I’ll strive to maximize the talents with which I have been bestowed to make the world slightly less frightening for all of us. And perhaps we all need to take a collective chill pill, because as long as we have the ability to panic about the state of the world and then do something about it, there’s hope yet, and more where that came from.
Nikhil Kumar ’17 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.