The power of a narrative
Last weekend at 1020, someone asked me what I was planning on doing in my last two years in college. I was a bit surprised—I didn’t think I looked 19, even if I may act like it sometimes. “I don’t have two years left,” I replied, “I have four weeks.” God, that’s a shock. Four weeks? I wanted to excuse myself, find a fellow senior, buy him or her a drink, and cry.
My first Columbia story starts after one of those NSOP frat parties. I made it back to my room at around 3 a.m., fell asleep, and was startled awake by the sound of a trickle of piss. “Hey, what?!” I exclaimed. A figure darted outside. I followed, and in the fluorescent Furnald hallway light I saw—not joking—my R.A. Likely pertaining to this event, my first R.A. was fired after two weeks on the job. Everyone heard the story, and I was briefly “that freshman” in the “pee-R.A.” story.
Well okay—now that I’ve opened up, give me two seconds to talk about … the Core. It’s been four years, and I’m only now getting a better picture as to why we start it all with the Iliad. The way I see it now, besides being a “classic text” or whatever, it’s a warning. “Like Troy,” it says, “Columbia will be a place of struggle, adventure, and epic narrative.” This makes sense to me: We as humans are “narrative” beings—according to psychologist Walter Fisher’s ”Narrative Paradigm“—and all of our experiences here at Columbia are part of the narrative experience of life.
Reading the Iliad is, in a way, a lot like experiencing life’s narrative. An incredibly detailed text, it bombards us with scenes and characters. We can immediately see how some are significant—for example, Achilles’ battle with Hektor, or Paris’ shooting of Menelaus—but are left to guess longer about the impact of others—for example, the killing of Sarpedon. Whilst in the midst of reading, it’s certainly difficult to tell exactly how some scenes (like an individual experience and character in our lives) will be impactful.
There are events in my life whose significance is already clear. During spring break 2011, for example, I would have been homeless in San Francisco if not for my friends Mike, Andrew, and Eric, who helped me find a hostel from 300 miles away at 10 p.m.—they deservedly went on to become some of my closest friends in college. Or summer 2012, when I navigated my way through Beijing myself after being stranded at the airport (my ride had a hangover) and ultimately met the man who convinced me to choose the career path I’m on now.
There are other strange events whose full arcs remain unclear and whose significance, if any, remains a mystery: that time I woke up on a sidewalk in East Harlem, with no clue as to how I got there or why I had a deep cut on my thigh (I don’t think I’ll ever know). Or in Changsha, China, when a kind prostitute literally saved my life—neither episode feels completely done yet.
I’m still in the process of weaving together and understanding my college narrative. Smaller scenes compress in upon each other, characters flit alongside the periphery, and every page folds together like a poorly edited novel. I’ve been blessed with close friends, great professors, and amazing opportunities. I’ve experienced endless streams of unique and strange experiences. Like a first read of the Iliad, I can’t tell right now how every scene or character will impact the course of my narrative. And I have no clear idea about what happens from here.
By sheer narrative impulse, though, I do know that some of the characters I’ve met will circle back somehow, and that some of these experiences have affected me in some way. And while I don’t know any of the specifics on “how,” I do know is that my experience here at Columbia has been epic in many ways.
When we each look back, I’m sure we can all say that despite the struggle, tears and blood, our time here been an amazing journey and a great story—I feel so blessed that we have all been characters, however minor, in each other’s epics.
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