Things Not Seen

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In addition to our weekly blog pieces, Crown & Cross publishes a semesterly print issue, a compilation of 8 to 12 pieces based around a singular theme. To increase their circulation, our website will publish new pieces each Wednesday as individual essays in a thematic series. This semester’s weekly series will be titled “God and the City,” the theme of our most recent print issue. Below is the first of eight installments.

There it was, the sound, the little “pop” noise my digital alarm clock made before it went off. My heart dropped in my chest as my half-awake brain tried to override the momentum of three hours of sleep. I engaged in this small internal battle as tinny radio music floated over from the clock to the edges of my pillow, taunting me with the possibility of another day, another twenty hours of no sleep.

I shot up in my bed, hoping the shock and subsequent brief feeling of vertigo would be enough to fully wake me. It wasn’t. Bright blue LED light shone through the cracks of my eyelids as I squinted at the clock and shut if off. It took me a few tries to hit the right button. Resisting the dangerous urge to fall back on my pillow, I yanked my toasty blankets off my body and stepped into the icy cold of my room. It was 5:30 a.m. Still dark out.

By 6:30, I was on the bus. I sat listlessly in the back, watching people get on and then later disappear into the hazy early morning light. All I could think about was how much I really just wanted to stay home. I don’t wanna go to school. I don’t feel like sitting through no more classes for another seven hours, or staying after school for three, or doing homework for the next six after that. I don’t feel like it. Why am I even doing this? But all I could do was sigh and give a slight laugh. It ain’t matter whether I hate it or love it. I don’t got no other option.

This was my life for all of junior year and most of senior year of high school. School was about an hour away by public transportation. My three AP classes kept me up until at least 2 a.m. each night studying and doing homework. The most draining part of my day, however, occurred during the three hours after school.

I was president of my school’s robotics club, where we supported and managed several competitive robotics teams. Being involved in any robotics competition is a challenging and time-consuming task, involving a heavy amount of mentoring, planning, strategy, and testing. We had to raise funds to register for competitions and buy new parts and tools, to make sure we had consistently active members, and much more. Most of this responsibility fell on me and the rest of the executive team, a team that had basically stumbled into existence. A team that, needless to say, had no idea what it was doing. We would stay and work for hours after school and make absolutely no progress. It was a constant struggle.

For a time, we assumed that our experience was normal—until we had the opportunity to advance to the state level of competition. We rolled in with our scrawny, “rinky-dink” masterpiece and were met with a slap in the face. Everywhere we looked, we saw teams of ten to twenty people, each with five to six adults working with them, each having a large, sturdy robot to show off. Logos from several sponsors, such as Comcast, Lockheed Martin, and Google, adorned their perfectly matching uniforms. They had their own flags and fighting chants.

And there we were. Six members. One ugly robot. Mismatched shirts. One adult. No sponsors. No flag. No fighting song. Not a shred of evidence that we deserved to be there.

It felt like we were swimming in a pool of cold syrup, slogging towards a fuzzy light up ahead that only became more distant as each step we took covered barely any ground.

We worked just as hard as, if not harder than, these kids. We stayed after school just as long. We asked for grants from sponsors, but would not receive them. We tried to bring in mentors, but they wouldn’t stay long. Our one adult mentor was helpful, but he often had his hands full with other things. When we occasionally did win, no one would applaud for us (though they would clap for other schools). We did everything “right,” but apparently, a Philadelphia public school just wasn’t meant to win robotics competitions.

Somehow, though, some way, we were able to keep getting up at 5:30 a.m., and go back at it again. On my morning bus rides, I would often wonder what we were doing wrong. We had stepped back, reevaluated, replanned, and reorganized several times, but something always held us back. It felt like we were swimming in a pool of cold syrup, slogging towards a fuzzy light up ahead that only became more distant as each step we took covered barely any ground. Every morning ride to school was a series of questions with no answer. Why does it have to be so hard? Why can’t we just get ourselves together? Why do we keep slogging if we obviously ain’t getting nowhere? At the back of my mind, though, sat a more ominous question. It was a question I was afraid to confront because I couldn’t answer it.

Why was God letting this happen? I would pray every morning for God to make sense of my situation. I would ask Him to show me what the purpose was for all this, because I sure couldn’t see it. As far as I could tell, I got no response. I would tell myself it was for my “future,” for me to “grow” in an effort to make myself feel better, but this was small consolation. None of it made sense.

Despite this, I somehow learned to accept this dilemma as a fact of life. The question remained, but nothing provided any answers. It wasn’t until I began my studies at Columbia University, in fact, that I started to reconsider it as a serious question worth answering.

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A lot of things were difficult about my transition here. It would probably take a few books (or maybe even a movie) to even come close to describing the sort of mental, emotional and spiritual shift that had to take place. One thing that struck me explicitly when I first arrived here, however, was a simple ideology captured in a single phrase. I had heard it before of course, but not as I heard it here. Not as some moral axiom. Never as some standard to hold my whole self to.

“Do what makes you happy.”

I don’t exactly remember where I first heard this idea spoken, nor when I realized how prevalent it was on campus. What I do remember, though, is my reaction to it. I laughed. I laughed at the fact that anyone could possibly think life was meant to be happy. Who had the time to worry about that? Who had the luxury?

And then I began to understand why I had found it so humorous. I had unknowingly internalized an alternative ideology, an alternative understanding of how life worked. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized where I had gotten it from—my very own city.

Philly is known as a working-class city, a place known for being rough around the edges, to say the least. It has the highest deep poverty rate of any of the largest cities in the United States, the school district is broke, and while the homicide rate isn’t as high as it used to be, it still looms over daily life. As I would go about my day, I could count on being confronted by several homeless people asking for money. I could count on someone coming up to me offering to sell (or buy) a “loosie.” I could count on seeing something on the news about somebody getting shot. This does not by any means to paint a complete picture of my home, but it does present many of its realities, realities that we accepted.

What kept the homeless person going out every day to ask for money? What motivated that guy at the bus terminal to keep selling loosies? What made me get up every morning to go to school and stay after for robotics? None of these lifestyles were particularly pleasurable. I’m sure most of us don’t think of them as being our dream job. Yet, we kept living them. We didn’t look for an alternative because we saw no other option.

People said it to my face so many times: they just couldn’t see themselves breaking the mold and doing something different.

The thing about Philly is that it teaches you to grind. It teaches you that life doesn’t hand out favors. No one has the time to seriously search for “happiness.” That isn’t a luxury that’s been afforded. While a sense of joy does exist, of course, it is ultimately recognized that life is a rough experience. You focus on moving through that pool of syrup, one day at a time, because if you stop, you drown. Do what you can and hope God works out the rest. It’s that simple.

Because no other options seemed to exist, it was all too easy to become trapped, to see no other future than what you’ve already seen. When all you can do is keep moving forward in the direction life carries you, you start to act as if you have absolutely no control over that direction. People said it to my face so many times: they just couldn’t see themselves breaking the mold and doing something different. It’s a heavy way to live. It’s sloppy. It rides on assumptions. And any attempts to take some sort of control, to find some breathing room, to feel good about yourself, are ultimately ephemeral. When relied on for a sense of purpose, such attempts often lead to an endless cycle, one that continuously searches for something, but never truly finds it. Bright new Jordans, silky flowing weaves, shiny LED rims, and heavy drinking are just a few examples of attempts to “escape.” The result is never complete satisfaction, but restlessness.

At Columbia, I almost expected the new mentality, of doing what makes me “happy,” to be a welcome break. Surely existing in an environment where everyone is encouraged to pursue their dreams could only motivate me. In theory, if I believe everything I do should serve to make me happier, I should become happier, right? Life should be more exciting, pleasurable, and satisfying. Everything I want should be right at my fingertips.

That’s not what I found. Indeed, to me it seemed that Columbia students wanted to be happy, and thought they should be happy, but in reality were quite the opposite. Instead of a culture full of joy, I found myself in a culture of stress and anxiety. Everyone seemed so intent on making their own dreams come true that nothing else mattered. My happiness was the ultimate goal; everything else was secondary. Thus, anything that interfered with my happiness was bad, something to be removed. We often hear talk of the great “Columbia bubble,” yet, to me, Columbia became countless small bubbles, each intent on being perfect, on getting the most out of everything. And when life invariably does present challenges to that happiness, or suggest that we cannot be perfect, our fragile little bubble can’t handle the pressure; it bursts. This mindset didn’t sit well with me. It felt unrealistic. It felt selfish.

It didn’t rub me the wrong way simply because it set an unreachable standard. What I realized was that the mentality I had learned in Philly also set a standard. It persists when it shouldn’t, and the only way it can persist is if there is, somehow, someway, a purpose to it. A purpose that makes it all worth it. The purpose itself is invisible, no one is certain it’s there, but it’s enough. It doesn’t thrive off of happiness or positive results. It doesn’t thrive off of what’s right in front of it. It persists with a hope in things not seen. It’s really a beautiful thing.

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Philly taught me to work without expecting reward. Philly taught me to do for the sake of doing. Philly taught me not to anticipate any handouts. Philly taught me to keep slogging through that pool of syrup, in hopes of eventually slogging through the whole damn thing. But there was no way I could get through it all alone. Something was there pulling me along.

God had been there the whole time. I’d known He was there the whole time.

The Christian narrative is one of living in an imperfect present while simultaneously looking forward in hope to an uncertain future. God has given each of us a purpose, supplied every person with a calling, and promised His followers ultimate fulfillment only if we pursue that calling in Him and for Him. Thus, life does have a purpose, but it doesn’t revolve around happiness for happiness’ sake, around slogging through that syrup just to climb out. It revolves around something far greater.

At the same time, God does not promise that we will always feel satisfied. He does not promise that we will always understand where He directs us, or why life is the way it is. He does not promise that life will always “work out” the way we want it to. That was never part of the picture, at least on this earth. What we are given, however, is a promise beyond what we see, a vision that transcends immediate circumstance and our own limited minds.

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. … [Many before us have] died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar. … Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared for them a city.”

When I first began learning about what it meant to follow Jesus, I had a hard time wrapping my head around this concept. How could I hope for something I didn’t see? Why was it relevant to me? What was I even hoping for in the first place? It just seemed so vague, empty and open-ended. Being at Columbia, however, has shown me that God was demonstrating to me what this meant all along, right back home. Even in the midst of the hardship and uncertainty of a messed up world, God has “prepared a city.” We are promised that we are here for a reason, to participate in God’s plan for making things right. We will often doubt that such a plan even exists, but we must trust that it’s already happening.

All I can do is look to my experience, and see the ways in which God has worked in it. I believe He has provided me with tools for engaging with the world around me in a meaningful way.

The point of this is not to trivialize the struggle of daily life at Columbia. The situations we all face here are very real. Nor am I trying to suggest that Columbia students are simply a bunch of miserable, selfish people. Seeking joy in life is a beautiful thing. The issue, it seemed to me, was the that Columbia students believed that the outcome of their daily grind should be some vague, ephemeral feeling called “happiness.” That’s how you knew you were doing things right.

This is not to say I also don’t desire a happy life. I do, and being at Columbia seems to have intensified that desire, creating a tangible internal tension. This conviction in things not seen, however, has work to resolve the tension. The grind ceases to function as some narrow mindset we lock ourselves into. It becomes a means of trusting our daily lives, and our future, to God. We acknowledge that our own vision is limited, and allow ourselves to be guided along paths we cannot clearly see. Moreover, we trust that, in the end, our guide knows where He is going. It allows us to participate in the moment and anticipate the future. It releases us from the constraints of selfishly trying to control everything and allows us to authentically engage with others without worrying about losing that control. That is true freedom. That is what has gotten me through my time at Columbia.

I’m not some expert on life or educated theologian. All I can do is look to my experience, and see the ways in which God has worked in it. I believe He has provided me with tools for engaging with the world around me in a meaningful way, despite the hardships that I inevitably continue to face. I believe that He can do the same for us all. My hope is that we all may experience this true freedom, a freedom that looks beyond itself, a freedom not constrained by this world, a freedom that hopes in things not seen.

 

Kai Tinsley (SEAS ’20) was born and raised in Philadelphia. You’ll likely find him rocking Timbs, listening to good music, or trying to understand physics in the library. Though he still doesn’t know how he got to Columbia or why he’s here, he hopes to somehow use the experience to help others.