By Soman S. Chainani
March 17, 1999. One year, five months, 26 days into my Harvard career—and I was a boy on the verge of a nervous breakdown. By nature, I’m a pretty calm kid. I don’t tend to take things too seriously, I don’t hold tension in my neck, I don’t confuse the forest for the trees. But in the course of 24 hours, I was knocked out.
Recipe for Nervous Breakdown:
1 rejection letter from Crimson Key
1 rejection letter from Prefect Program
1 rejection letter from the Signet
1 girl wearing pearls and carrying a
Kate Spade bag who cuts you in line in the dining hall
(Beat to a frothy paste and smear.)
Being a stranger to rejection, I rationalized, justified and poo-poohed to anyone who would listen. “Crimson Key discriminates.” “You can’t be a prefect unless you’re friends with people on the steering committee.” “I’m not pretentious enough for the Signet. I don’t own any smoking jackets or sweater vests.” But the more I seethed, carped and whined, the more that gnawing, paralyzing tightness began to sink into my stomach. I heard the voice that drives many a Harvard student, the voice that kicks you when you’re down: “You’re not good enough.”
It’s no secret why Harvard gets off on rejection. If that critic drives so many people here, pushing them to achieve, to get the highest grades, to be special, then it only makes sense that once we find ourselves in a position of “power” in the University, we take full advantage of the opportunity to tell someone else, “You’re not good enough.”
In this light, the accusations of grade inflation by the faculty seem especially befuddling. If professors and TFs go out of their way to pat us on the back with higher marks, then Harvard would seem to be a place that works to assuage the inner critic, to bolster our fragile egos.
But why then do we students take it upon ourselves to dump on each other? Life is already full of so many slammed doors, unexpected stumbles, crises of faith. We all made it to the top of the mountain together. There’s no need to push people off, or to set up a VIP area. Then again, the temptation to exclude and reject is remarkably powerful. I remember getting a whiff of righteousness and superiority earlier this year when I had to choose the next arts executives for this newspaper. Suddenly, it became so easy to accept my role as an arbitrator of worthiness—to judge people, to classify them. This person goes in the good pile, these 10 people go in the reject pile.
Now that I think about it, what is it that Harvard students have against ballot-based elections? In almost every organization I can think of, the leaders are chosen by what can only be described as a formalized gossip session. The current leaders of the group go into a room, dish about the nominees, air out their dirty laundry and eventually settle on compromise candidates. It all sounds very noble, but inevitably ends up turning into a vituperative venting of insecurities, an exercise in exorcising. (Sample justification for rejecting a candidate—and I swear this is verbatim from a recent election: “I just don’t think she has the intellectual capacity to be a vice president of this organization.”) True, it is often quite satisfying to see the world in this light—to have that fleeting sense of righteousness and omnipotence while withholding our stamp of approval. But our love affair with hierarchies ends up pitting us against one another, amping up the volume on our inner critics instead of drowning them out.
By the end of the four years, though, I think we all learn the most important lesson that college—and perhaps, even life—can teach us. I might have suffered my crisis of faith midway through sophomore year, but it took me only a little while longer to figure out what it all meant (and no, I didn’t get this off a fortune cookie): Follow your own path, no matter what people say. Sure, it’s a cliché, but for good reason. If you’re complacent, if you let your inner critic overwhelm you, then Harvard can pummel you into submission, into bidding for conformity. But who comes into college saying “I want to be a gov jock!” or “I want to be a Pearl Girl!”? If you can take your lumps, if you can be motivated by the rejections, if you can just find a way to trust yourself, then this place will toughen your spirit. And in one of life’s delicious ironies, Harvard becomes the place to learn uniqueness.
Soman S. Chainani ’01, an English concentrator in Lowell House, was arts chair of The Crimson in 2000.