As Thanksgiving approaches, most Harvard students are emerging from midterm season—a time where professors conveniently schedule midterm exams and essays within the same, short span of a few weeks. Dining halls are packed well past midnight. Coffee carafes are pumped without mercy until they choke and sputter. If one were to take a stroll on Mt. Auburn early on a Friday evening, he might be surprised at the relative quietness. It’s true that we Harvard students enjoy having a good time. But let’s be real—most of us take our midterms seriously.
Midterm season can also be characterized by a certain way that Harvard students have of interacting with each other. It is during this time that the seeds of a game I like to call, “Who Has It Worse?” are planted. No student realizes that he or she is a player of this game, but deep down we all have the desire to win. We all want to disclose to the people around us how much studying or writing we have to do, how much time we have to spend planning this or that, how frustrating it is that our extracurricular activities prevent us from starting our work until 11 p.m. Let me be clear: This is completely natural. In fact, I would say that when faced with serious stresses, it is healthy to communicate how we are feeling to those with whom we are close.
But therein lies the problem. Allow me to explain. When students talk about their massive amount of responsibilities over the course of a few weeks, they don’t tell the entire story. Taking a turn in the game of “Who Has It Worse?” involves more than simply listing off a number of obligations. There is a certain method to it—an unspoken, understood cadence that one adopts. The idea is that players simultaneously express concern about and dismiss everything they have going on. They do this by being self-deprecating—appearing to shrug off the responsibility because they are doomed to fail at it anyway. For instance, a student might go through his list with a sigh, claiming that he or she is completely unprepared for that test tomorrow and will receive a bad grade for sure. But of course, the listener knows that the claim is total BS. He understands that there is a good chance the student is doing fine in that class, knows the material better than he claims or thinks he does, and will do fine on the test—AND, the listener recognizes that in the back of the student’s mind, he knows it is BS as well.
These are the assumptions dictated by the rules of the game. But that’s all they are: assumptions. While the listener might think that the student complaining truly has a handle on everything and knows it, the reality is that the student could be extremely stressed out and worried. The problem is that when that student expresses his concerns in the context of the game, he is not communicating his true feelings in a healthy way. Thus begins a negative cycle: The listener believes that all the players around him actually have a handle on all they have to do, and they’re complaining is just a facade. This makes the listener feel stressed out and inadequate. He responds by becoming a player in the game himself—expressing everything he has to do in a way that makes everybody else believe that he is actually confident in all of his work. This in turn makes everybody else feel inadequate, and the cycle continues.
It would be easy for somebody to offer the student body a quick and simple solution to this issue: If everybody always said how they truly felt, then there would be no ambiguity. In my opinion, however, that is neither a fair nor realistic thing to ask of people. Instead, the goal should be to help students realize that this place can be really difficult sometimes. Everybody goes through his or her period—sometimes periods—of struggle. So instead of asking the players to make a change in their behavior, this responsibility should fall to the listeners. The listeners are the fuel for the game for they make the initial key assumption that the player is not actually as stressed or worried as he says. Imagine if they did not make that assumption. The listeners are the ones in a position to end the cycle by helping their friends realize that they are not the only ones struggling with schoolwork. We will each be listeners a number of times over the course of our Harvard career. The question is, when we are, will we succumb to the rules of the “who has it worse?” game and participate in it, or will we recognize when the game is being played and stop it?
Brooke H. Kantor ’15 is a Near Eastern languages and civilizations concentrator in Dunster House. Her column normally appears on alternate Mondays.