Outside the Comfortable

Disdain for the world outside should not accompany life in the Harvard community

At 11 a.m. on a rainy morning a few weeks ago, my biggest concern was trying to finish my reading for section. I have no way of knowing what 62-year-old Philip Macleod’s greatest sources of suffering and anxiety were: the frigid rain outside, unwashed clothes that smelled like stale beer, homelessness, loneliness, or depression.

But Mr. Macleod walked into William James Hall that morning to get out of the cold, and maybe find some company. He broke the busy silence of the library with his boisterous attempts to engage students, including myself, in conversation. When Harvard University Police Department (HUPD) officers arrived, Mr. Macleod refused to “be good” (as they exhorted) and was arrested for trespassing. The police report refers to the “screaming and yelling” that accompanied his arrest.

I, and all the other nice people in the library that morning, could get on with our work. But after Macleod had asked me my name and told me he wasn’t afraid of God, after I had heard his protests as he was escorted out, I was left sitting in my armchair a little less comfortably. The unease I felt during the man’s disruption was outlasted and overwhelmed by a nagging feeling of guilt that lingered after the arrest.

We’re lucky enough to attend a university that pays such attention to our comfort. Every undergraduate here has to admit the College does more than enough to keep us safe from hunger, cold, and fear every day. When Harvard protects its property from outsiders, it ensures for students and faculty the availability of a quiet and safe space to live, work and study, protected from the intrusion of the outside world. For that outside world (which includes Macleod), it ensures only strictly-enforced exclusion.

We’re very lucky to be able to live in such a walled-off dream world. But even among all these physical comforts (which I suppose my tuition pays for), that luck and its consequences can seem very difficult to justify.

We grow accustomed to seeing the same unfortunate people in the Square: the same sleeping bags outside the Coop at night, the same cajoling man selling Spare Change News outside Au Bon Pain, the same lady on the benches in front of Bank of America. Familiarity breeds blind comfort, and somewhere along the line, we begin to see our neighbors in the Square as the nameless homeless, instead of people much like ourselves.

We cease at last to be sympathetic to their misfortunes or interested in their lives, instead coming to ignore them outright. Finally, we participate in and endorse a culture of stark and impenetrable walls. But there is very little in reality dividing Macleod and me. I cannot forget that, for the most part, it is only happenstance that entitles me and my classmates to the warm quiet of the library and damns him to the cold.

This revelation followed fast on the heels of the arrest I observed back in March. I couldn’t help but silently apologize for being afraid of the ‘trespasser’, for hesitating before I shook his hand, and for regretting making eye contract in the first place. We should never be so smug in our privilege that contact with that unfamiliar Other becomes a source of distaste. And while it may seem futile and even self-indulgent to sit uncomfortably in an armchair in William James feeling guilty, the opportunity for honest confrontation of our privilege as Harvard undergraduates will prove worthwhile as long as it informs future interactions with those that might not share in the same advantage.

Rachel M. Singh ’10, a Crimson editorial editor, is a social studies concentrator in Pforzheimer House.