I am a student at Rutgers University. You probably care about that as much as you care about my “hopes and dreams,” so I will get to the point.
A few months ago, I hopped onto a bus to get to my next class. When I failed to register pressure against my back, it instantly dawned on me that I left my backpack at the stop outside. As the bus rolled away in what seemed like slow motion — and I felt as if I was portraying some pathetic college freshman in a Judd Apatow film — I realized the next stop was only a block away. I would simply calm down, go back to retrieve my bag, and be on my way.
However, after I exited the bus and made my way up the street, anxiousness set in: What if it isn’t there? Who will I call? Would my professors make me repurchase all of my supplies?
Then, I suddenly caught sight of the familiar sack of unread books up ahead. It was sitting right where I had left it 10 minutes prior.
I was relieved. I just saved myself a good few hours of my time, and potentially hundreds of dollars in school items. I was glad none of the students reported it and hung onto it for safekeep—…
At that last thought, my stream of consciousness imploded. Come to think of it, why was my bag still there? There were at least six or seven students standing in the area. Not a single one of them could take it upon themselves to see whom it belonged to? What if it was a bomb? Does anyone care about the safety of others? Even theft would have been better than that passive horror show for god’s sake…
I gave the students a cynical look and sat down (this time with the bag securely on my person). Deep down, I knew the answer to my questions: We simply don’t care anymore. We are too busy on our phones. We are too busy watching Netflix and refreshing our Facebook pages and indulging in mindless partying. We are unengaged and neutral. I would repeat the cliché “we are sheep,” but even sheep make material contributions to the world.
As I walked onto the next bus that came around, I was surprised I didn’t fall seven times. The burden of what I now refer to as the “Lost Bag Paradox” was unbearable. I feared that this contradictory set of emotions — excitement at having recovered a lost item, and deep cynicism of the modern world for failing to aid in the recovery of said item — would become more and more common.
I know what you’re thinking: “You attend a public university in the socially fragmented pit of despair known as New Brunswick, New Jersey, which is sandwiched between two even larger socially fragmented pits of despair known as Philadelphia and New York City. Of course nobody is going to give a damn about your backpack!” While the circumstance I described may (understandably) come across as too anecdotal for your liking, it actually reflects nationwide trends. A 2011 study by Sara H. Konrath, for example, found that empathy in young people has been in decline for the past 30 years, “with an especially steep drop in the past 10 years.” This goes in lockstep with the famous findings by Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam. In his twenty-five year study of over 30,000 Americans across the country (aided by nearly 500,000 interviews) Putnam found that “We sign fewer petitions, belong to fewer organizations that meet, know our neighbors less, meet with friends less frequently, and even socialize with our families less often. We’re even bowling alone.”
The complete explanation behind our increasingly detached nature is unclear. Many, including Putnam, point to increased diversity and the changing face of the West as the culprit behind reduced cohesion, but who truly knows? Maybe it social media. Maybe it’s urbanization. Maybe it’s neoliberalism and corporate greed.
Maybe it’s all these things.
In all honesty, I have absolutely no idea how approach these “maybes” on a societal level. My brief 19 years of existence have barely left with any time to clean my room, let alone learn how to solve the world’s problems. Nonetheless, I do know that the left’s supposed solutions to issues of social cohesion – which includes more safe spaces and campaigns for “tolerance” and the general upheaval of social norms – will only leave individuals feeling even more atomized and nihilistic.
That’s not to say that we haven’t made any advances. Within the past twenty years, the number of people living in extreme poverty has been cut in half, and since the 1960s, the rate of infant mortality has been reduced by 72 percent. The only problem is that in the midst of our celebrations of unprecedented gains in capital, we have completely lost sight of the fundamental human need for “social capital,” or the benefits derived from communities and social networks that facilitate trust, cooperation, and, most importantly, a feeling of belonging. Yes, in the capitalist world we live in, we have gained plenty (we have “found our backpacks,” if you will), but we need to be aware that within our acts of consumption, we also lose something; we lose that part of ourselves that enables us to feel as if we are part of something bigger — as if we are something other than a student at a large university, or a worker in an enormous city, or a singular (and replaceable) consumer in an increasingly globalized world.
Western nations may have already begun to reorient themselves and finally take social capital into consideration, but we still have a ways to go. In the meanwhile, we should each engage in our own subtle attacks on the virus known as apathy. There are multiple ways to accomplish this: When a random passerby sneezes, say “God bless you” (you’ll smile at their confusion); don’t fiddle around with your phone for the sake of it – absorb the world around you; strike up a conversation with a complete stranger – but the dialogue cannot be about just anything, you need to make it intense. (Personally, I enjoy asking if Elon Musk is correct about the simulation, or whether or not taxation is theft).
Most importantly, if you see a bag sitting around, don’t be afraid to see whom it belongs to. If you don’t find any identification, and you need to bring it over to a lost and found, or perhaps report it to the authorities… so be it. After all, if living in a friendly country means I need to take a little time out of my day (or even have an awkward exchange with a SWAT guy in a bomb suit once in a while), I’m all in.
Jacob Miller is a sophomore at Rutgers University. He is heavily involved in multiple political clubs on campus, including Young Americans for Liberty and the Rutgers Conservative Union.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.