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Thoughts On a New Year

By Steven A. Engel

"The snow greets us when we leave, and it greets us when we return." --a thought overheard in a house dining hall.

Our measure of time is a convention. We decide when our day begins--half a solar period past the sun's zenith (not counting daylight savings time). And we decide when our year begins. It's our excitement at our own conventions that annually brings half a million of us to worship drunkenly the descent of a shining ball in Times Square.

Our excitement at the new year empowers us to resolve to correct our failings from the previous one. We will eat less, drink less, swear less and work harder, all to honor the turning of the year. I imagine some of these resolution are successful, at least until exam period, or so. But then we return to our old vices, only to swear them off again come next year.

The turning of the calendar reminds us of the passing of time. It calls on us to make better use of our days. Alas, for Harvard students, the turning of the calendar reminds us that we have three or four days before we return to snowy Cambridge to begin studying for finals.

For seniors, the new year is a reminder that our days as Harvard undergraduates are rapidly coming to a close. The first semester of senior year slipped by unnoticed while we struggled beneath mounds of applications for fellowships, graduate school, or (the horror! the horror!) gainful employment. Between labs and thesis research, we occasionally found time for coursework. Now if we're not careful, our finals and our theses will steal away what precious months we have left.

Occupied by the obligations of our Harvard careers, it is easy to lose a sense of time. It is only every once and a while that the real world intrudes upon our days at Harvard to remind us that there are more important things than finals and even more important things than job interviews.

Gabriel Piedrahita '96 was one of several hundred people killed when American Airlines Flight 965 crashed into the side of a mountain outside of Cali, Colombia. If Gabriel were not on the plane, the crash would be just one more evening news tragedy that claimed more faceless victims, that created more faceless orphans and widows and widowers.

But the crash is made more significant because Gabriel was not just an anonymous tragedy, but one of us. Those of us who knew Gabriel suffer the pain and grief that comes with any loss, made more acute by the victim's youth.

But for even those of us who never knew him, Gabriel's death is a reminder of the bitter truth that is lost in the routine of late-night study sessions and marathon essay writing. Like so many of us, on December 20, Gabriel left Harvard to fly home for the vacation. He was accompanied by a friend and expected to see his parents on the other end. Gabriel is one of us and every one of us could have been him.

We mark out time with our conventions, but we are not the masters of our time. We do not know when we will exit or why. We plan for the future without any guarantee. Gabriel's death reminds us of the precious grasp we have on our lives.

What we can control are the little strokes that we make each day. We are responsible for the enjoyment of our times, setting our daily course even though we cannot know where it leads. It is with this knowledge, perhaps, that we try to improve ourselves on the dawning of the new year.

For those of us who knew and loved Gabriel, the pain of his loss will probably last a long time. For those of us who did not, his death and the truth it represents will likely subside as we are caught up in the routine of our daily events.

Perhaps that is healthier than the alternative. Perhaps it is an easier way to live. But perhaps there is a certain comfort to be enjoyed as well in knowing that life is more precious than our finals and more precious than our occupation next year.

Steven A. Engel's column will continue to appear in the next semester.

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