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Columns

Taking Life’s Trains

By Rachel D. Levy, Contributing Opinion Writer
Rachel D. Levy ’22 is an Environmental Science and Public Policy concentrator in Pforzheimer House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.

What is it that makes traveling by rail so romantic? It’s hard to picture such an experience without entering a reverie of frosted windows, those thin pieces of glass the only barriers between a passenger and primitive mountain ranges; the spectacle-wearing, newspaper-reading men who somehow make the daily news feel personal; and the warmth of coffee served by a gentle, seemingly all-knowing waiter, enjoyed amid the stillness of it all. There’s the quiet hush of conversation, made just incomprehensible beneath the steady rolling of the wheels; the unobtrusive, faint music that adds to the tender melancholy of the entire experience. Did we all watch “The Polar Express” too many times growing up, or is there indeed something to this slow-moving mode of travel that is undeniably enchanting?

Undoubtedly, it would be faster to travel by plane instead of train. While standing in the TSA line, a person could be productive and scan a few quick articles from different publications on Apple News instead of limiting themselves to a single, not to mention time-intensive, newspaper. Furthermore, it’s admittedly more convenient to pre-order coffee on a mobile app, bypassing the need to waste moments on communicating an in-person order and risk a delayed arrival at the gate. By the time our airport traveler sits in front of the windows exposing the concrete sea of tarmac, he’ll have read the news, drank his coffee, and be left with time to dive into the all-important world within his computer until it comes time to board. And if he faces a wall of boredom, the option stands to tap into his Instagram feed for a quick dopamine rush. Distraction is only ever so far away in our modern world; much easier to reach than enchantment.

Two such travelers may be heading towards the same destination, yet their experience of the journey is drastically different. Each decision of our airport traveler makes logical sense in terms of efficiency. The question, instead, is if efficiency and ease were ever worthy goals for our lives.

Sped up as we are in many aspects of our modern society, this metaphor between travelers is one that begins to define a disturbing majority of our days. From our gradual replacement of bookstores with Kindles to our preference for the convenience of Amazon Prime over small businesses, it seems we’ve reached the point where we must ask ourselves if we’ve given up too many of life’s meaningful moments for the sake of efficiency and productivity. Was it worth trading away life’s allure in the effort to speed it all up?

In defending his decision to forgo the materialism and inconsequential pitter-patter of society for a deliberate life in the woods, Henry David Thoreau expressed a fear that had he not left, he might realize he had gone through all of life without taking time to live. I imagine there is suffocating gravity in such a fear realized.

“I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear,” he philosophizes. “I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, ... to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience ...” He makes a worthy point here: Life need not be easy nor convenient for a person to be better off for having experienced it.

With convenience has come boredom, and an abundance of leisure time we spend online as a distraction. It’s in the recognition that there is inherent, intangible worth in slowing down that life has the chance to woo us once again. This, however, comes only to the person able to realize meaning cannot be pulled from convenience. To “suck the marrow out of life,” as Thoreau puts it, takes the sacrifice of our favorite distractions, a conscious step away from comfort and a legitimate commitment to interacting with the world as it stands in front of each of us. Perhaps, though, the work it would take is worth it.

With that, I encourage you to take life’s trains when they present themselves — if there is one truth in the end, it’s that regardless of what we do until we get there, we’re all heading to the same destination. Whether you interact with the world around you by taking the train or simply rush onto the plane, however, is up to you.

Rachel D. Levy ’22 is an Environmental Science and Public Policy concentrator in Pforzheimer House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.

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