This story by Jonah Beleckis, a former UW-Madison student, isn’t another story that tells students to stop drinking on campus. This certainly isn’t another column to merely point out UW-Madison’s drinking culture. Maybe it’s that I know Jonah and I consider him a friend that this story impacts me so much or that much like Jonah, I drink far less than my peers, but every time I read this story, and yes I have read this story multiple times, I feel it in my bones. I feel the time, the energy, the thought and the care with which it is written. I think I feel it because yes I know the author, but more importantly many of the questions that Jonah raises I have thought about myself. I’m not a huge fan of the “We! Want! More! Beer!” chant either. I seldom go to random house parties and drink the five dollar cup of alcohol. I recognize that for so many alcohol provides people with a mask to act and do things that they wouldn’t do sober. For many, alcohol justifies a stupid mistake. When someone does something they might otherwise regret, they say, “Oh, well, it was the alcohol’s fault.”
This also isn’t just a story about Jonah. It is a piece about many students on campus.
That’s the sign of a good personal opinion column. It might focus on the author, but it is not boastful or narcissistic. This story has a big picture message and asks questions that apply to everyone. Jonah, in this case, is merely the main character of his own story. A few weeks ago I remember reading New York Times columnist William Rhoden’s final opinion column after writing for The Times for 35 years, and while it is a piece about his own retirement, Rhoden does not focus exclusively on himself, but instead ties his tale into famous Cleveland Browns running back Jim Brown’s retirement story. Brown, one of Rhoden’s idles growing up, is extensively quoted throughout the story and serves as a role model for Rhoden in his own thought process. The story is about Rhoden, but he is merely one character in the story. And the story, though a piece about how Rhoden is retiring from The Times, asks questions that relate to everybody. How do we say goodbye? When do we know that it is time to we walk away? When and why do we make certain life decisions?
Jonah’s piece also really makes me wonder about that last question as well. When and why do we make certain decisions?
Why do so many people succumb to peer pressure? Why is drinking an excess of alcohol, not authentic conversation, or watching an interesting movie, or sporting event, the predominant form of fun? Sure drinking can relieve some stress, but there are limits to everything and sometimes I don’t think people at UW have them. Even worse, many people delude themselves saying they don’t need the booze to have fun when they’re only happy when drunk. People frequently convince themselves that they know their limits when they clearly don’t have any. They even sometimes laugh about their excessive drinking like they’re listening to John Oliver.
As Jonah writes, alcoholism is an addiction.
For me, this piece isn’t about Jonah. It might open with Jonah introducing himself at a weekly recovery program group and it might close with more about Jonah’s own life, but his last line, “Is anyone else out there?” is not about him. It’s about me. It’s about many of my friends. It’s about this community. It’s about us.
This piece may focus on Jonah’s experience, and it may be by him, but it isn’t about just him, it is about everyone. It is for everyone. It makes the reader think about themselves and their choices. It makes the reader think about their community. It makes the reader ask reflective questions. That is truly impactful and beautiful writing.