Isaiah Zeavin-Moss: My lonely mind

Sunday, April 9, 2017 - 12:21pm

Last week, my best friends from home visited Ann Arbor because they have each dropped out of school to pursue music careers and, through a web of connections and mutual friends, they were given studio time in Detroit. So they would spend their days mostly in the city, and then come back here and hang out with me.

And while I was spending time with them, I realized, among other things, that I don’t feel very close to very many people in Ann Arbor. How could I? After all, I went to the same school from the time I was 3 years old to when I graduated high school, so I’ve known many of the people who visited me for my entire waking life. Immediately once they arrived, the choice of whom to spend time with was abundantly clear: With my friends from home suddenly here, there was not really anybody else to be around.

And yet, I don’t think I saw as much of my friends from home as I could or as I wanted to. And this is because I do a lot of different things on this campus. I have two majors and a minor in three departments whose work and faculty members I respect enormously. I work with a lot of change-making organizations: the Prison Creative Arts Project, Students4Justice and the Program on Intergroup Relations, to name a few. I truly admire what these organizations stand for, and I am more than willing to help in any way I can.

In a Positive Psychology textbook referencing a 2002 positive psychology study, the author notes that the investigators Ed Diener and Martin Seligman found that the most consistent, salient characteristic among people who scored the highest on a happiness survey was “their strong ties to friends and family and commitment to spending time with them.” This is something one of my friends from home pointed out to me while he was here.

And yet it’s something I’ve not thought about during my time at the University of Michigan. I think my way of understanding how to be happy at the University was to do the most things, to get most involved, as a means of leaving my mark on this campus as someone who tried to change all the fucked-up things that happen here.

Because, from its origins, this university is really unjust, both in its history and in the way in which the discourse surrounding that history takes shape, as the powerful Stumbling Blocks exhibit shows: This land was stolen from Native Americans, in part, with the understanding that Native children would be able to attend this school, and yet not a single Native American attended the University of Michigan during the next 130 years.

Today, at a school which is meant to represent the world in which we live and, I believe, the world in which we want to live, only 13.8 percent of the class of 2020 comes from underrepresented backgrounds. Despite these statistics, of course, the University brands itself as  “Always Leading. Forever Valiant,” and it has made this year’s graduation ceremony one to explicitly celebrate the University’s history — fraught with discrimination — instead of inviting a dynamic speaker to help graduates construct a more egalitarian future.

The answer is not in celebrating our past. The answer is in interrogating our past relentlessly and brutally. Invite a Native American whose ancestors were lied to by University founders and administrators to speak to the class of 2017. Invite somebody whose ancestor was denied entry into this country by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1892, drafted in part by former University President James Angell.

All of this — our past and the way we go about discussing it — is pathetic and inexcusable. And, as I type out these aspects of our University that I myself already know, I feel rancor boiling within me. I begin to look at students entering and exiting Mason Hall with this rancor attached to all of them, because I see them all as not doing anything about the deeply problematic aspects of this school. I see them only in the context of this; I see them as lazy, ungrateful, blind.

And so I work to change this campus by joining organizations. I will not become the blind, lazy idea of people that I sense all around me. But I’m not writing this just to say that. I’m writing to say that this work has not brought me happiness. My days are grossly routinized: wake up, homework, class, class, homework, meeting, dinner, sleep. I barely speak to people here — why would I, if I think of the average University student as complacent and fundamentally silent? I don’t laugh for extended periods of time here. “There is too much work to be done,” I think. 

Nor am I writing this to criticize the people in my life or the people on this campus. Not at all. I’m writing this as a certain diatribe against myself and the way in which I have lived on this campus. I have not worked to foster deep, long-lasting relationships. I have known people in meetings and lectures. I have not known people by taking walks with them and singing and dancing and playing Scrabble and Boggle with them.

Instead, I have seen people in this campus largely as products of this university’s history — the anger I feel toward the people around me, right now, just having recorded a few of the horrendous historic aspects of our University’s history — is proof of this. I am writing this, instead, to catalyze a shift in the way I see people here: not merely colleagues and peers, but people with stories and lives to share.

I’m reminded of a quote by the transcendent author Audre Lorde: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation.” I think I have somehow denied myself the ability of self-care, denied myself the time and space to create deep and long-lasting relationships, which are, I do believe, the key to happiness. 

Isaiah Zeavin-Moss can be reached at izeavinm@umich.edu.