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Mathew: Why do penguins commit suicide?

Kevin Mathew, Columnist

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I recently watched a video that broke my heart. I learned penguins wander into the arctic, to certain doom, supposedly when they just can’t take life anymore. In the video a penguin separated from the group and waddled off toward the mountains, away from the water that sustains penguins’ lives. My feelings were overwhelming. First, I felt an overload of adorableness. I can never get over how cute penguins are. Second, I felt intense sadness knowing an animal that adorable was wandering toward death. And finally, I felt sudden empathy. I felt a connection with this tortured penguin. I felt I understood why he or she wandered.

Perhaps I was caught in my own symbolic interpretation. This penguin did not seem insane. I saw my own life reflected: the comfort in the herd, the instinct to wander, the urge to explore. But I learned from the penguin’s mistake, for he or she forgot the necessary balance between the comfort of community and the appeal of individuality.

Most introverts know what I am talking about. Daily, I feel the urge to drop it all and wander off on my own to find some sort of unknown adventure. And yet if I do not see anyone for as little as one day, my loneliness crashes my dreams of a spontaneous adventure. In the crushing “cold” of the Northwestern arctic, more formally known as “midterm season,” there seem to be only two options for solace. One can huddle in the herd to keep warm and persevere, or one can drop it all and wander toward the mountains. However, this is a false dichotomy that tricks me, and apparently penguins, every day. There is a third option. We can choose to live in the comfort of a herd with occasional adventures to the mountains, returning each time to prepare for the next adventure.

As a strong introvert, it is all too easy to forget just how crucial social interaction is. Sure, we become overwhelmed when we are at an “untz, untz” fraternity party, packed in a sweaty herd, shoulder-to-shoulder, wing-to-wing. But just because large groups can be overwhelming, do not assume we do not need others. We need a home to return to once we finish recharging. It takes a constant, conscious effort to balance the strong individuality of an introvert with the loneliness outside the warmth of the herd. I felt this penguin’s existential crisis and the undeniable will to express individuality, to go to the forbidden, to explore.

This may sound overly romantic coming from an NU student who spends most days in class or between classes, but look around. The world we live in is an incredible place, littered with the enduring achievements of the individual will. We learn complex concepts in classes taught within elegantly designed buildings at a tremendous university, a true monument to fearless mental exploration. Every day we witness inspiration to annunciate our individuality, but the danger is real. Although we do not waddle toward corporeal mountains, we boldly develop ourselves into individuals with unique perspectives and unique ideas. We must remember that when our spark of adventure burns dim and the cold of the competitive environment seems too much to bear, we can always return to each other, where we will find comfort and warmth before we press on.

The penguin condition is tragic because penguins cannot explicitly communicate with one another. But we can. We can encourage each other to explore where none have gone before. We can push one another toward our greatest passions. We must remind each other that the warmth of our company is always waiting, for when there is a home to return to, we are able to explore so much further than we ever could before.

Kevin Mathew is a Weinberg senior. He can be reached at kevinmathew2015@u.northwestern.edu. If you want to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com.

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