Death, Barbara Snyder and the Talking Heads

The meaning of Spartan life

Jacob Martin

Having a weekly opinion column with the freedom to say practically anything I want is a privilege I sometimes take for granted. I often think about how I’ve landed this spot and what influence, if any, I have on the Case Western Reserve University community.

As my deadline approached this week, I realized I hadn’t written anything and didn’t have any idea on what to write. It is in moments like these I recognize just how lucky I am to have this space to write in, yet I still found myself preoccupied with a number of other things and unable to focus on mustering at least 400 words to send to my editors.

I thought about my normal topics and decided against those. I thought about the tagline of my column and its major question: is there meaning and purpose in life (at CWRU)? I was sitting in Tomlinson Hall, watching two meetings going on simultaneously in the glass rooms across from the main entrance when I thought about meetings in general. I thought about what meetings accomplish and what each party involved personally gains.

I started thinking about it, and she is right. CWRU is transactional

I had coffee with a director of a division in the Office of Student Affairs earlier this week. She said something I’m still processing; she called CWRU “transactional.” That is fascinating.

I started thinking about it, and she is right. CWRU is transactional—all universities are. As a student, I enroll and matriculate, pay a given amount of money to complete a prescribed course of work leading to a degree that marks my education level in society. This is, by definition, a transaction between different entities.

But my friend meant something more, so I began thinking about all of the transactions I’ve made with CWRU as an institution and with individuals. If I push this notion to its limits, it’s not absurd for me to think every interaction that has happened between CWRU and me has been some sort of transaction—either I or CWRU gained something due to our communication.

All semester I’ve been meeting with administrators, student groups and individual students to discuss matters related to diversity and our sense of community on campus. From vice presidents and provosts to members of Greek Life and Undergraduate Student Government, from presidents of cultural organizations to students not affiliated with any campus group, everyone has something to say on these matters.

On Monday, I will meet with President Barbara Snyder to discuss the same issues. As I prepare for our discussion, I keep thinking about the word transactional. I will get an entire column, but what will she gain from the minutes I spend in her office?

I wonder what each person I’ve talked to has gained from meeting with me. I was mostly asking questions and trying to get something out of the other party. Obviously I’ve gained a lot, but what about them?

Meetings are a transaction. Actually, most things in life are. Apart from creative self-expressions that bring us some personal pleasure, our time is typically not spent frivolously. Calendars control our lives and clocks control our calendars.

One of man’s greatest questions is that of time. We romanticize living a full life, one in which the shoulda-coulda-woulda thoughts are nonexistent in the moments we feel death walking towards us. While this is a digression, it still bears relevancy.

Because of the inevitability and sheer blunt force of entropy, we have ended up at CWRU for this stretch.

Life is a transaction. We are given an allotted amount of time on this rock called earth, and we pay for it with death. This makes me think about how we spend our time and what we do as a job to make money. It forces me to think about why I write this column and spend so much time meeting with all the people I mentioned earlier and why they fill the roles they do.

If I’ve learned anything from these meetings, it’s that many people are passionate about CWRU. People care about this place and want to see it improve. I could challenge that assertion with dozens of attacks, but I don’t want to. I want to believe that CWRU is a home for many, a place where some greater meaning is found. Perhaps this is why we do what we do in an ideal situation—for meaning—but we must remember our privileges.

There’s a Talking Heads song called “Road to Nowhere” that I listen to way too much. It’s a lyrical allegory for oblivion that David Byrne sings in a distinctly upbeat tone to an even more distinctly upbeat soldier’s-march tempo. It’s packed with philosophical ramblings and existential musings, but the underlying word is “we.”

The song always reminds me that human beings are all on this road to nowhere together. Because of the inevitability and sheer blunt force of entropy, we have ended up at CWRU for this stretch. As we traipse down footpaths, in and out of meetings and drool on textbooks during finals, we must remember that others are walking alongside us.

Jacob Martin is a weekly opinion columnist. Sometimes, life gets in the way of productivity, and things don’t go according to plan. The important thing is to turn something in.