A couple of years ago, in the golden age of answering the age-old query of “How are you?” with a dismissive “Fine” or an emphatic “Great!”, I challenged Harvard to ask a new question: “How are you, actually?” Since then, I’ve noticed my own development has been most profound when I’ve given myself permission to tussle with this difficult question.
However, eliciting an honest answer from others, especially without prying or prodding, has proven to be a trial in itself. There seems to be continued aversion to vulnerability on this campus—as if revealing our own struggles somehow makes us inadequate. In my personal experience, though, I’ve realized that I’ve connected most with others when I’ve been my most vulnerable, when I’ve been authentic in owning that things aren’t always easy, and that I could use some support.
Harvard is a goal-centric, high-achieving environment—one in which it feels intolerable to falter, for fear of what stumbling might mean about our characters and intrinsic worth. We constantly berate ourselves for tiny imperfections when we could instead connect with each other over the things that aren’t so easy. In our solo quests to be the greatest we can be, we lose sight of the actual experiences that will make us our best selves: connection, exchange, and honest interaction. We’ve woven a false narrative in our minds that our successes are measured by effusive descriptions to others of how well we’re doing.
This outlook is destructive because of the high premium it places on external validation and pretending that things are going better than they are. It’s time to tell ourselves a new story: the story that struggling is acceptable, and that our issues deserve to be heard.
Instead of going to war with ourselves, let’s work together to cherish our qualities, both good and bad. I’ve made the most progress when I’ve welcomed the things I don’t like about myself. I notice them. I acknowledge them. Then, I hug them closer, and accept that I have aspects that aren’t flawless. For example, I struggle to embrace how I can be uptight, especially when it comes to cancelled plans. I used to stew over postponed dinner dates and called-off study breaks and turn my disappointment inwards. I told myself that a friend’s decision to reschedule on me was somehow indicative of my being unworthy or undesirable. Eventually, I began to talk to others about my insecurities; only then was I able to combat the voice that undermined my self-esteem.
This isn’t easy, but it’s worth the work; reaching out to others to accept the love that will make us grow is much more impactful than speaking to ourselves in a judgmental and damaging way. The choice to present an edited version of ourselves to others rather than acknowledging and accepting our insecurities is alienating and secretive. If we can’t offer our authentic selves in our day-to-day interactions, we can’t truly expect to engage meaningfully in any of our relationships.
Many of us are conditioned to strive to maximize our successes, and avoid any mention of things that didn’t go quite as planned. This mindset can make the concept of talking about our struggles frightening. This calls for courage, though—not fearlessness. I’m not telling you not to be afraid. I’m inviting you to notice the things that scare you the most, and do them anyway.
After all, we weren’t put on Earth to be stoic and detached. We were put here to let the world affect us, to allow life to crack us open and have an impact on us. When we live passionately, not apathetically, we make space for our most formative experiences.
These are the types of lifestyle choices that can transform Harvard’s campus. I believe that a true change in the type of environment that Harvard fosters will come only when we collectively decide to eschew the idea that “fine” is the baseline, and instead normalize an atmosphere where reaching out is the norm when times are hard.
Authenticity in acknowledging our shortcomings is, unfortunately, a revolutionary idea today. I challenge Harvard to join me in ascribing to the radical notion that we can love ourselves, own our faults, and still find fulfillment.
Julia E. Canick ’17-19 is a Molecular and Cellular Biology concentrator in Adams House.
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