Our Better Selves

Digressions

With pre-frosh weekend around the corner and the last two weeks of classes just beginning, I have started to wax nostalgic about the past four years. But before you dismiss this as another self-indulgent stroll down memory lane, bear with me for a few more paragraphs. A lot has changed since my own first Ice Cream Bash; we have a new president, a new Dean, a new Institute for Advanced Study. We’ve witnessed the Yard filled with snow, with leaves, with tents and with anti-war protesters. There have been changes for the better (one less C[h]ore, Brain Break, a newly air-conditioned Widener) and changes for the worse (the demise of Store 24, grade in/deflation). We came to school at the height of the dot-com bubble; we leave it far less secure, less certain and less optimistic than seniors of yesteryear.

But the biggest change, perhaps, is internal: we began at 18 and are now four years older. In many ways, Harvard has been a good place to do some growing up. Part of this is because it is an imperfect institution, and, in the process of criticizing its faults and foibles, we begin to recognize and cultivate our own ideals. It is because we have some sense of what things should or could be, after all, that we are dissatisfied with what is, and because we have hope that things can be made better, that we work so constantly to implement our own definitions of improvement. I’ve often made my column a place to air these grievances, rhapsodizing on old favorites like the Core, the Living Wage, and what I—as an overzealous, History 1661-taking junior—called the “vanishing life of the mind.”

But as I write these final columns, it has sometimes been a struggle deciding how and what to write. I thought at first that it was because I had exhausted the topics I cared deeply about, or because there was simply less campus fodder to chew on (as compared to the wealth of last spring, for example). But recently I’ve realized that maybe it is because we spend so much time talking about this place as an institution (a subject on which there is only so much to say and so many ways in which to say it) that we forget to turn that same kind of critical eye on ourselves. When we talk about Camp Harvard, or preregistration, or sexual assault on campus, we are not really talking about Summers, or Kirby, or willful bureaucratic blindness—we are talking about ourselves, our expectations for how we live our lives here and the kind of people the University teaches us to become.

One of the essays included in the pamphlet distributed to entering first-years by the Freshmen Dean’s Office is Emerson’s “Self-Reliance.” The message: take heed and trust thyselves; against the influence of others, rely on and cultivate your own mind. While this you-can-do-it-if-you-believe-in-yourself attitude might be valuable advice for first-years—suddenly small fish in a very big pond (Want to play hockey? So what if these girls are Olympians? You too can give it a shot!)—such a lesson comes with mixed blessings. Given license to trust ourselves, self-improvement becomes the routine of our lives: we spend our days writing papers and practicing instruments and memorizing foreign languages and working out on elliptical machines. Sometimes self-reliance easily becomes self-absorption instead.

One of the most honest answers I’ve heard to the stock interview question, “what is your biggest weakness?” came from someone who admitted that in the process of her own success, she failed the people she loved and who loved her most. The possible fallout of having the privilege of growing up where we do is that it’s easy to become wrapped up in our own lives—to a fault. In four years of pursuing my own interests and nurturing my own development, I have caught myself becoming stingy about my time, less open with my ideas, less able to care unconditionally for more than a small number of people. For these four years we have the freedom of being obligated to no one but ourselves, responsible for nothing but our own educations, engrossed in our own activities, classes and job hunts. The danger of this kind of freedom is that it teaches a lot about ourselves, but very little about other people. We may learn from others (it’s what you learn outside the classroom that counts, right?) but rarely do we make them part of ourselves, share in—rather than simply know about—their particular passions. It seems somehow a loss that part of the cost of growing up, of becoming a more complete human being, should be that we become more discrete, less impressionable, less generous individuals—that in the pursuit of our best selves, we should be liable of discovering our worst.

Perhaps a better lesson to impart to bright-eyed first years is the value of self-reliance within rather than apart from a communal life. In this way, our best selves are found not in solitude (as the Transcendentalists would have it) but in the richness of the present, in the company of friends.

Sue Meng ’03 is a history and literature concentrator in Adams House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.