A Soon-to-Be Graduate Now In Quarantine Reflects on His Time at Columbia
What I remember most from a car accident that occurred several years ago is not the impact nor the trip to the hospital, but the phone call that followed. It was a friend telling me to check my Columbia transfer decision that had just gone online; he had received less than desirable news, but hoped mine would be better. After telling him “not now,” I changed my mind. I fumbled my login portal password multiple times while struggling to remain conscious, then waited for the page to load. Ringing in my ears was “Roar, lion, roar…”
Now, three years later, just weeks before my graduation, I am back home in Arcadia, California, a few miles from the scene of my car accident. It doesn’t feel like I am returning to a place as much as I am revisiting a memory—pleasant and ironic. Back then, everything changed in one moment, and soon I was eagerly packing my bags for Morningside Heights. The reverse has now happened, and I’m in my dreary room overlooking suburbia. Some days I strum the same four uninspired guitar chords over and over; other days, I Zoom-call friends or try to salvage a sociology thesis (its sources remain in the Butler stacks). Most recently, I read The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus.
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Camus, who never quite made it onto our beloved Butler frieze, retells the story of the Greek king of Ephyra, who was condemned by the gods to repeatedly roll a massive boulder up a hill, only to have the rock tumble down once he reaches the top. Camus says that we must imagine Sisyphus happy in his relentless labor: In accepting his situation, he finds satisfaction. Camus’s intervention is nothing short of a fundamental reinterpretation; there is more to the anguished king than we are led to believe.
I understand the Sisyphus story to mean the Columbia experience—classes at the Metropolitan Museum and the Museum of Modern Art, afternoons in Central Park, golden sunsets for those lucky enough to have dorm rooms facing the Hudson. Yet now, it is clear that we, like Camus, have each intervened in this myth and unsettled it. In our time at Columbia, we have all found something that makes the whole story worth telling again. As a soon-to-be graduate in quarantine, I think not of the falling boulder, but of the hill I have climbed—and will climb again.
The week my roommate and I arrived at Columbia, we took a spontaneous trip to the Metropolitan Museum, intent on making our first symbolic purchases in the city. I settled on a $5 blue New Yorker cover encased in a black plastic frame, which I bought from one of the outdoor vendors always in front of the museum. What caught my eye was the blue—it was Columbia blue—and the illustration of the famous Rockefeller Center Atlas statue in wintertime. In the picture, a young boy gazes up at the bronze Titan condemned to carry the heavens on his shoulders while his father pulls him away. Over the years, the magazine cover had been taped first to the wall of my one-room double, then my one-room single and, most recently, my apartment on 113th and Amsterdam, now stacked floor to ceiling with cardboard boxes filled with the possessions of friends and strangers who had only days to say goodbye before leaving campus in March.
I have been receiving stories of New York and Columbia from those who have remained in the city. Students are graduating early from Columbia’s medical school so they can work on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic. The Bubble at Columbia’s Baker Athletics Complex at 218th Street has been turned into a field hospital. And every night at 7 p.m., there are resounding cheers from apartment windows and balconies all over the city for the doctors, nurses, orderlies and E.M.T.s tending to the sick.
I think back to that $5 purchase because before Camus’s Sisyphus, there was Atlas. Both bear great burdens, seemingly forever—Sisyphus, the rock; Atlas, the sky. But a friend recently pointed out to me another problem with Camus’s Sisyphus: He alone rolls the boulder, and he alone finds happiness. The story begins and ends just with him. In contrast, I imagine Atlas holding up the sky not because he is condemned to do so, but because there are others beneath it.