Last September, on a Wednesday night, I found myself in a daze crying on the iconic steps of Widener. I’d always thought that if I ever cried on the steps of Widener, it would be after commencement and the final full Class of 2018 photo. I would be crying because of all I had accomplished over the past four years; or I would be crying because I still didn’t feel ready for adult life and the real world.
But instead, I was crying because life at Harvard is not always as picturesque as the hallowed steps of Widener—the same steps that represent the idea of this school and everything we want it to be, that are photographed thousands of times each day by tourists and prospective students trying to capture the façade of the University. I was crying because there would be one person who wouldn’t be in that Class of 2018 photo, one young man who couldn’t be proud of what he’d accomplished, one friend who couldn’t be scared of the real world. I was crying because I had just left Luke Tang’s memorial service.
Death on a campus of Harvard’s size is complicated. So much of the student body is interconnected—as classmates, teammates, Housemates, blockmates. The passing of a student can hit hard, resonating emotionally and personally. Even for students who are unacquainted with the deceased, though the immediate impact might be minimal, the true effect is slow acting, working its way into thoughts and reflections subtly over time.
It is difficult to be so near to the place and moment of death but so far removed from its circumstances and its victim. It is difficult to find yourself six months after the event, remembering that you forgot about the tragedy and wondering how something with such startling impact managed to evaporate from the campus psyche. This is the saddest part: That we mourn heavily for a week or two and subsequently get distracted by the business of daily life on campus.
But what I took away from the complicated days, weeks, and now months following Luke’s death was this: Life needs to be more important to us than death.
In this world, in this country, on this campus. We need to focus more on life, on living well. Of course, we should take our time to stop and mourn someone’s passing, but we should strive too to honor the lives of those around us every day. Dying is scary, dying young is scarier, but living with an eye towards death is the scariest. Trying to make our lives into what we think they should be—in terms of goals or accomplishments—before we die is a daunting and often impossible task because it cannot account for the randomness of life itself.
Focusing on living well means placing as much attention and importance on ensuring the day-to-day quality of our lives as on pursuing the end goals that we all strive towards, whether it is a job at Bain, a fellowship at Oxford, a volunteer teaching position, or a spot in the NBA. We need to enjoy the ride that takes us to these places, not make the ride so excruciating or overwhelming that we wonder why we embarked in the first place.
Of course college is meant to be academic, but college is more gestalt than that: Classes work best in conjunction with meeting interesting people, trying new things, and enjoying yourself. Doing so makes the prospect of life’s shortness that much less frightening, hopefully leaving us with less ‘what ifs’ and more paths taken.
An emphasis on improving the quality of our lives can help improve the discussions about mental health as well. When we start enjoying the journey without getting distracted by the destination (the Emersonian cliché), we can improve our own lives both here on this campus and beyond. When we don’t put our heads down and drudge through life to some final destination, we can see life as it happens around us, including the not-so-nice parts. We can admit to ourselves that we need help, that we are unhappy, that we are feeling lonely. We can get the help we need from the resources we need. We can refocus and recognize that these trials are universal, normal, human.
And when we take care of ourselves by acknowledging these normal parts of life, we can make each other’s lives better. We can stop using homework as an excuse to not ask others how they are really doing and stop using back-to-back office hours as a way to avoid listening to our friends when they ask for help. We can stop trying to meet the expectations created by the façade and legacy of Widener and acknowledge what really lives at this university—what we see in it every day that the tourists’ cameras cannot capture: The sometimes stressful, sometimes wonderful, and sometimes terribly dark lives of ourselves and our peers.
We can take ownership of this place and use Widener as a shoulder to cry on rather than a monument to idolize. We can enjoy life here. All of us, and now one less.
Shayla B. Partridge ’18, a Crimson editorial writer, is a History and Science concentrator living in Leverett House.
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