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Living in the world

You could, I suppose, call me exercise-adverse. You won’t, for instance, find me in Dillon Gymnasium for pursuits more athletic than the Frosh Week activities fair. Nor will you see me in Jadwin wearing any uniform besides that of the Band — a decidedly not sporty bunch. I gain very little pleasure from pushing my body to do what neither it nor I want to do. But as I rush to 8:30 a.m. orgo on Tuesdays and Thursdays this semester, I find myself missing my semi-regular early morning routine of last year. Then, as I jogged around Carnegie Lake gasping for air, my eyes, ears and nose were gulping in stimuli of their own, from the sunrise-red dew and the birdsong to the occasional deer or family of goslings I’d meet along the way.

I’m in no way an expert on the physiological benefits of exercise, so I’ll leave that discussion to other writers. The benefit of my time on the towpath was access to something uncommon at Princeton — experience of the physical world, separated from my academic life and its trappings.

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On a college campus, we are enveloped in the realm of the Idea writ large. Our days are spent thinking about abstract constructs, from late-classical ideals of the female to efficient search algorithms. Seldom do administrators, faculty or students allow the setting to interfere with ideas — indeed, academic buildings, from the depths of Firestone to the brute heights of Fine seem built to keep out the physical world. On a campus like ours, far from the intruding bustle of a large city, we are even further separated.

The reality, of course, is that the ideas we live for here do correspond with the world outside FitzRandolph Gate, and even with our personal lives outside of the classroom, lab and library. It’s silly for an academic of any pursuit to seek total isolation from external intrusion; the same Orange Bubble which allows ideas to ferment in peace provides ample opportunity for them to turn sour. But study at Princeton — an isolated and immersive environment — fosters, by its very nature, a sense of separation between the life of the mind and the life of, well, everything else.

This dichotomy plays right into the “work hard/play hard” mentality I’ve seen in so many of my peers, wherein time not spent having a maximal amount of fun (via the Street, band, gaming or other sources of reckless abandon) or optimizing one’s skills and ideas for the future is seen as dead time to be avoided. Or at least that’s the caricature presented of us by analysts from this paper to The New York Times who have bemoaned the “end of courtship” or the dearth of coffee dates. The claim is that we can’t keep a sustained romantic relationship because it would be a distraction from our ladder-climbing and skill-honing. Such disequilibrium is unsustainable, of course. For evidence, we need look no further than the trope of relationships begun as commitment-free on the Street turning into something more. Even when they don’t last due to miscommunicated expectations, the fact that we tend to seek more emotional attachment speaks volumes of our need for romantic connection, human connection, indeed connection to all aspects of the world.

Despite efforts to provide us with our own orange island, the University seems to have recognized the value of venturing into the physical world in at least some respects. Though other authors have shared here legitimate complaints about how “orange-tinted” Princeton’s study abroad programs can be, done right they provide ample means to stimulate us with the messiness of the “real world.” More valuable in this respect are, I believe, the pre-orientation frosh activities OA and CA. It’s hard to remain enveloped in abstract ideas when the very real issues of a sputtering camp stove, a service task unfinished or a wet tarp for sleeping intrude into our first experiences as freshmen.

That we benefit from — even need — this sort of intrusion explains our love of another Princeton icon, the squirrels. How can we remain trapped in our minds when these foraging, scampering fools keep leaping into our paths, our food and our bedrooms?

As I write this, I realize the irony of producing a navel-gazing column urging escape from the land of the idea. But then I glance out the window at Connecticut’s fall colors, feel my sleeping girlfriend’s head on my shoulder, hear the mutterings of dozens of other travelers over the smell of the diesel fumes and smile. We have a human need to connect to people, to feel the world around us, to be more than minds in an ivory tower. And because we need to, we’re pretty good at it.

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BennettMcIntosh is a sophomore from Littleton, Colo. He can be reached at bam2@princeton.edu.

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