Interview by Andrea Midgett
Cornell senior John Nystrom is an unusually thoughtful and articulate guy, but he is not at all pretentious. He does not try to wow you with who he is, make you laugh or charm you. When asked to describe himself in two or three words, he pauses before slowly responding, “I am hypothetical. I am flexible. I am balanced.” He leans forward, rests his hands on his forehead, and quickly adds, “Let me think how to explain what I mean by that.” He then sits silently for several seconds before he begins filling in the blanks, word by articulate word.
Though he is not boisterous or physically imposing, it is clear Nystrom’s presence at Chesterton House looms large – as Resident Advisor, friend, student, late-night discussion participant, cook, event planner. He is grateful for what Chesterton House is and where it is going. Since this interview took place Nystrom was accepted into Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine for graduate work. He plans to return to Chesterton House next fall when his studies begin anew.
Where are you from and how did you get to Cornell?
I’m from Rogers, Arkansas, which is in the northwest corner of the state. My twin brother and I are the second and third of five children. We were all homeschooled all the way through.
I’ve wanted to be a veterinarian since I was about 16. Cornell has an amazing vet school, kind of like the Holy Grail, and a really good animal science program. I’d like to work with livestock – cows, horses, goats, pigs, sheep – production animals. I love the intersection of animals and human livelihoods. People really depend on their animals, especially small farmers. Right now I am doing undergraduate research on African goats, which function as a form of currency in that part of the world. One day I would like to work overseas with farmers and animals in developing economies.
Did homeschooling adequately prepare you for Cornell’s academic and social environment?
Although life as a homeschooler had its unique challenges, I loved it, and I would do it again. I was prepared because in my family the thought was, “You take ownership of your education.” That attitude stood me well in coming here. I can study on my own. I am self-motivated. There was a big focus on the classics, the humanities. I was good at science and math, but I loved the humanities. Interestingly enough, both my twin and I have ended up in science, though he is at a different college. We are both pre-vet.
How did you find Chesterton House? Did you feel prepared to live in such an intentional community, with its mix of personalities?
I lived in on-campus housing my first two years here. But I knew about Chesterton House before I came, through researching churches in the area, reading the website, etc. I’ve lived in Chesterton House the last two years. I wouldn’t say I had a lot of expectations coming in. I did have preconceived notions of what Chesterton House is like, and I haven’t been disappointed. I knew about its atmosphere – digging into the riches of the Christian tradition, the library upstairs, our weekly discussions around the dinner table, Karl Johnson’s place in the program. (Karl is the most well-read man I know.)
Friendship and community have been the overarching theme of my two years here. I think I started college with a stunted understanding of what that means. I had the “social game” down when I came to Cornell, but I didn’t have deep friendships. That began to change for me when I lived in the dorms. Then I came to Chesterton House, where you are doing friendships with committed Christian men and women – that’s been powerful.
Are you saying it’s always easy to live at Chesterton House? That there are few significant differences between the residents?
There are a lot of differences. Doctrinally. Culturally. Seventeen men live here, from all over the United States. Some from other countries. We have Catholics, Protestants, Baptists, people who are more charismatic than others.
The dynamics of the Chesterton House community are shaped by the dynamics of how the 17 of us grew up – how emotion was processed in our families, how our family members interacted with each other, etc. Maybe most of the guys were raised in Christian families, but certainly not everyone. That’s not always the best indicator of where people are, anyway. We come to know each other apart from our families, though our growing up experiences are there in the background.
For example, there are big cultural differences between my family dynamics and those of my good friend, Anderson, whose parents immigrated from Taiwan. My parents have been in America their whole lives. Another of my housemates grew up attending public schools in Long Beach, California, which was very culturally different from being a homeschooler in Arkansas. Another housemate was homeschooled like I was, but he grew up in Kuwait. What he saw and experienced every day was completely different from my experience.
How do these kinds of differences between residents impact the life of Chesterton House?
Our cultural differences are played out in daily living. It’s what we bring to the table in terms of conversation, how we react to events and things in our lives, our religious attitudes and perspectives, how we think about Christianity, how we even think about God – we see different attributes and characteristics. It’s not always the same. My friend who was raised Catholic does not always see things as I do, raised Reformed. And the two of us see things differently from our friend who was raised more charismatic.
Although our differences are in some ways complementary, they can also be conflicting and can cause tension.
Have the existing differences been maximized or minimized during your time at Chesterton House?
I would say they’ve been plumbed. They have been found out. And some have been minimized. We are creating a culture of our own. Our experience living at Chesterton House is shaping us. It’s kind of a melding together on top of our existing cultural differences. It’s also true that some of us who have been here together for a longer time have begun to approach things similarly.
How are you creating your own culture? Is that even possible?
Our shared culture is created by living together, having conversations together. But it also comes from doing things together, having shared experiences that are fun. A few of us shop for groceries for the whole house every week. We cook together, in teams. We even soak together in a blow-up hot tub we bought that takes forever to heat up!
Are you telling me everyone living in Chesterton House cooks? Have your cooking skills improved? Is there always enough food?
There are 11 or 12 of us at dinner most nights, and you definitely know when you have not cooked enough food for everyone. I’d say there is a healthy competition between the cooking teams. We try all kinds of different, ambitious foods. We experiment. One housemate is from India; he uses authentic Indian spices. My own skills have improved astronomically! I now make a pretty mean chicken potpie.
Let’s return to your description of yourself: hypothetical, flexible, balanced. Tell me a little more. Has living at Chesterton House clarified how you see yourself?
Well, I am hypothetical. Or analytical, full of self-doubt. It’s part of my scientific bent that I don’t accept things at face value. I have to sit on something for a while, ruminate on it before I accept it.
I’m also flexible, in that I’m a pretty steady person who can go with the flow. I don’t often get really upset with people. I don’t really get offended. My attitude is more “I’ll move before I make you move.”
Finally, a big theme of my life is finding balance, realizing you can always go too far in one direction or the other. I see both sides of most discussions. I have this need to be balanced.
Knowing that G. K. Chesterton loved paradoxes – holding two ideas in tension – has been helpful for me. Two ideas may seem to be contradictory, but they are actually in a kind of a dance together. They need each other in many ways. If you destroy one side of the paradox you wind up with a weaker understanding. To put it another way, the goal is to stay on the horse, not fall off either side of the horse.
I see that a lot in my life, in terms of my faith, my everyday life, my personality. My mind often sees the middle and tries to bring the two sides together.
Has living at Chesterton House nurtured who you consider yourself to be?
I’ve had a lot of really good discussions while living here, many late at night, that have helped me understand myself better. Being really challenged by people – while living in community with them – has changed the way I think about the world. And there are a lot of really good speakers that pass through here. I’ve developed and equipped my mind to think about new things.
Is what you are describing, this inner journey, the goal of Chesterton House? What about residents with less analytical minds than yours?
I think one of the reasons Chesterton House exists is to come alongside people and what they are already doing – in terms of studies, working in Christian fellowships, etc. – and be a catalyst for deeper discussion, engagement, more enrichment. There is a huge intellectual bent to it, that can’t be denied. It looks back to a deep tradition of Christian thinkers, and it looks ahead to how people perceive Christianity and how Christians perceive themselves.
But it’s more than intellectual. Residents of Chesterton House demonstrate what living together in community looks like; that’s one goal. Its presence at Cornell and in Ithaca, making that presence known, is another.
Is Chesterton House too serious?
I don’t think it oversteps its toes. You know our motto, “Daring to discuss the serious and the amusing.” Our discussions around the table can be very amusing! In fact, we started keeping a “quote” book to help us remember some of the things that are said. We have ping-pong nights. We soak in the hot tub. We have game nights and music nights and Super Bowl parties and movie nights. Last semester we had hot-tea-and-poetry-reading nights.
Who is the ideal Chesterton House resident?
Well, it helps if you are interested in socializing and don’t spend all your time in your room. It also helps if you are interested in trying different things.
Everyone living here has his own area of interest. Right now there are a lot of physics majors in the house. It’s cool to see how their interests are shaping the trajectory of their lives, and it’s cool to hear what they bring to our discussions. They enrich everyone’s experience.
It also helps to be as flexible as possible. It can take a lot of grace to live in a big, old, messy house with 17 people.