People don’t look up.
I’ve proved it to myself a number of times. On one occasion during my sophomore year, after climbing to the top of Dillon Gymnasium, I spotted a friend of mine walking past me toward Spelman Halls and the Wa. I called out to him and, hiding behind a gargoyle, observed with terrific glee that he skidded to a halt and immediately turned to look behind him. He looked to his left and to his right, and then, curiously, into his messenger bag, before scratching his head and continuing on his way. He did not look up.
We certainly don’t take issue with looking down. When I was a child, plane rides were just the most exciting thing. I used to argue with my little brother over who got to sit next to the window, even though we were small enough then to be able to press both of our heads against the glass. We watched as we rose higher and higher until the cars and trucks on the highway began to look like the ants that swarmed out of the hills we stomped on at recess. Here was the vastness of the Earth, shrunk to a size that I could understand and absorb within the myopia of my worldview.
I’ll admit that whenever I’m on a plane, I still like to look through the glass at the world below. And I still find it pretty neat that nobody down there would ever think to look back up at me if it weren’t for the noise of the jet engines.
There is a place near my hometown where the murky turquoise waves of a TVA-commissioned lake meet the base of a brown rock formation rising 50 feet into the air to form cliffs overlooking the water. These cliffs are a popular gathering spot for young people during the warmer seasons, who drive from miles around to hurl themselves like lemmings off the ledges and land, whooping and hollering, in the lake below.
This past summer, my high school friends and I gathered together in our hometown to return to the lakeside cliffs before the start of our senior years. We drove along the derelict country road and wandered through the bush to arrive at the top of the rocks, just before the sun set.
We met a shirtless, tattooed young man who asked us for a cigarette lighter, because he’d gotten a bit drunk and thrown his off the cliff. When we came up empty, he consented to sit down beside us to talk for a while.
A car enthusiast with a particular fondness for Japanese domestic market vehicles, he shared his dream of one day going to Tokyo to check out the street-racing scene there. “You know, like that movie 'Tokyo Drift.' None of y’all happen to be Japanese, do you?” he asked hopefully. We told him we were sorry to disappoint. “Man, I’d really like to go,” he sighed.
Then he jumped from the highest cliff.
A sense of mounting terror crept over me as the minutes passed and he did not resurface. My friends dove in to search for him while I stayed ashore to dial 911. We left after the cops came with their speedboats and searchlights. I would read in the news the next morning about the body of a drowned man discovered underneath the rocks where he’d jumped the evening before.
I stayed up that night and many nights after wondering what had kept him from just skipping town and going to Japan. Wondering what kept anyone from just pushing aside the things that get in the way of what they really want from life. Maybe he hadn’t saved the money. Maybe there were things he needed to take care of first. Maybe he thought he’d have plenty of time to get around to it, eventually.
We Princetonians are ambitious, driven young people. We have incredible plans for our futures, and if we don’t have plans, we have dreams, and if we don't have dreams, we have vague suspicions. But there are times, with so many aspirations packed so tightly into one small Orange Bubble, that working to meet those great expectations can feel like fighting just to stay afloat. And sometimes we get the feeling that where we’re headed isn’t where we’d really like to go —that what we’re working for isn’t really what we want. But we tell ourselves that we’ll have plenty of time to get around to chasing those dreams when we’re older, when we’re more secure —when we’ve made it.
People don’t look up, not when our eyes are fixed so firmly on the ground we have yet to cover. But maybe, just once in a while, we should.
Daniel Xu is a molecular biology major from Knoxville, Tenn. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.