“My socks don’t match,” a friend told me, as he wiggled his one Gold Toe.
“I noticed,” I replied. “You should do laundry.”
“Does it matter?” he objected. “They’re just socks.”
“’Course it matters,” I answered. “You look like a five-year-old boy.”
“Please,” he said. “If I wear shoes, no one will notice!”
At that moment, I remembered something that I’ve noticed about my classmates these past four years: We hate the mundane.
To be fair, we’re following a trend, not starting one. Young people generally hate the mundane, the ordinary obligations that most people fulfill. They ignore chores. They neglect niceties. They annoy neighbors. But they love the noble, the extraordinary feats that few people attempt. They devote themselves to cutting-edge research or life-saving charities because they want to help people—particularly people who are poor. So Harvardians can’t be bothered with everyday tasks like laundry. They have Africa to save. Harvard thinks big—not often.
I actually encourage this focus. I’m proud of my classmates’ service in charity—if not in politics. But a single-minded focus on the big things harms the little things, which are more important than we realize. You see the discrepancies everywhere: the guy who donates his books to charity but leaves his clothes at school for his roommates to put in summer storage; the girl who cares for disadvantaged kids in the afternoon but cusses out students who disturb her studying at night.
In short, you see people who are so busy trying to save the world that they forget to take care of it.
An economist might object that these kids have huge “opportunity costs.” Why spend your time matching socks when you could be saving rainforests? True, but one thing you can’t outsource is the care of your own: your family, your friends, yourself. When you fail to care for yourself, you leave that task to your friends and relatives, who, despite your protests, do worry about you. So you should call them every now and then and squeeze them in for lunch. Because if you don’t, who will? That care—the care of the little things—is necessary.
And it’s necessary to do the little things well. You can’t think great thoughts and do great deeds if you’re overtired and malnourished. Your friends also might not follow you to the barricades if they’re pissed that you forgot their birthdays.
On a more serious note, the hunger for nobility endangers everyday morality—because the latter is expected. What does it matter that you held the door open for a stranger? It’s not out of the ordinary. Or, at least, it wasn’t. Today, we act like the crucial tests come with the big things. Did you give up a lucrative job to help starving kids in Haiti? Did you take a stand against your government? Did you die in the line of duty? But the crucial tests come more often—in fact, they come everyday. Those common courtesies—which today are not so common—are tests of whether you respect all mankind. And you can see the angst that the lack of them has caused on campus. Young people today have lots of “contacts,” but few friends. When you don’t take the time to respect the people around you, it’s hard to get to know them and to befriend them. And I wish we did that more often.
Because for all the complaining I’ve done about this place, I’ve also grown to love it. I wouldn’t have complained so much if I hadn’t. And for all the complaining I’ve done about the academics, I did actually learn more from my peers. I learned which of them were—beyond intelligent and hardworking—kind. Remember that Aristotle wrote his Ethics because he thought Plato had given the philosophers too much credit. They weren’t the only virtuous ones; the everyday people, who were rarely acknowledged for their actions, were good, too.
You can find those people here: the guy who, despite being chained to a desk for 14 hours a day, still remembers to send you a birthday gift; the guy who, despite the looming deadline for his thesis on “The Commercial Paper Funding Facility,” still manages to read your column every week.
After four years here, I’ve learned that acknowledging, then meeting, then befriending those people is one of the best—perhaps the best—thing you can do in life. And that’s the best education I could have asked for.
Brian J. Bolduc ’10, a Crimson editorial writer, is an economics concentrator in Winthrop House. This summer, he will be a Robert L. Bartley Fellow at the Wall Street Journal.