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Parting Shot

What Are You So Scared Of?

By Diana McKeage

Dear Harvard Class of 2012: Congratulations! Four years later and we are all slightly older versions of ourselves. (Fuller heads, perhaps.) Now is the time when all the people we’ve met start feeling like too many marbles in our hands, marbles about to drop and scatter everywhere. Serendipity alone first brought us together, but crossing over to the Real World is no longer laughable or avoidable. It is as real as life without dining halls and dorm crew; as real as visas, leases, and taxes. So what are you doing? Why are you here? Where are you going?

Freshman year, I learned in Moral Reasoning that all creatures, man or beast, have first order desires: I want to get out of bed; I want breakfast; I want to go medical school, and so on. These are the thoughts that occupy most of our waking life. I also learned, however, that what makes us human are our second order desires: wanting to be a certain way, which may or may not be the way we already are. From there we work to become how we want to be, for these second order desires go beyond New Years’ resolutions. Rather, they are the fabric and foundation of how we make decisions. They give our lives meaning and direction. So I ask, again: Why do you do what you do? I believe that every Harvard graduate should have an awareness of this question and their own answer to it. Such answers, in my opinion, should extend beyond one’s personal comfort.

I would bet that many students made it to Harvard through some fortuitous blend of perfectionism and masochism. This blend, I find, bubbles into a certain culture on campus best described by the “I Am Fine” Crimson piece published last year. In my opinion, Harvard has an ethos of judgment that can become rather toxic; it truly doesn’t surprise me that Facebook began here. People seem to focus more on the people around them—their accomplishments, event attendance, number of contacts, etc.—rather than appreciating themselves in a vacuum.

Where does this lead us?

Students measure their achievements by their reception and competitive value, rather than their absolute value. Personal worth and self-esteem become tied up with success. Organizations as much as social structures thrive on the juicy nectar of exclusion: What better way to ensure that you win the game of life than denying your peers the chance to join you? And what about those people who aren’t fine? Well, they find some way to escape their surroundings. But more often than not, they hide their feelings, which to them feel like blemishes, dirty little imperfections. Repeatedly, voices on campus champion “opening up to others” and “reaching out to your classmates” as the panacea for these problems, but as far as I can tell, nothing changes.

My dear classmates: In order to grow, you have to believe in your heart that every person is just like you, in some way or another, and that every person has something special and beautiful to offer the world. You have to believe that every human is worth something, not just another measuring stick to stand against. People are not statistics that you tweak in order to maximize the bottom line. People are individuals, with real histories and valid opinions to share. Conversations should not feel like waiting for your turn to speak. When you believe all this in your heart, you will be free.

Because once you are free, the Real World stops being a terrifying place where food doesn’t cook itself and we pay our own bills. Rather, it becomes an exciting, thrilling, dangerous, and unpredictable place, filled with billions of people with trillions of stories to share with you. Some of my more memorable conversations at Harvard had little to do with Harvard itself: I’ve talked about the global economy with Louie (of Louie’s), the Arab Spring’s aftermath with a cab driver, and American politics with security guards much more well-read than I. You see, our education is not a golden ticket that lets us bypass the lives and problems of everyone outside the Yard. Allston and Mission Hill are not fly-over zones between campus and Boston’s clubs and museums. What is the point of everything we’ve learned if we keep it all to ourselves?

So please, reach out, explore, connect. Open your minds and your heart, as much as possible, before you become shackled to some comfortable ride and predictable future on the road more travelled. Put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Ask yourself what you would do if you woke up tomorrow with not a single cent to your name. Eleanor Roosevelt said that “You must do the thing you think you cannot do.” She also said that “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” After graduation, whether you consider yourself on the edge of the diving board of life or slowly sinking in a cesspool of uncertainty, remember that your freedom is all you have. What are you so scared of?

Diana T. McKeage ’12, a Crimson editorial writer, is a literature concentrator in Cabot House.

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Parting ShotCommencement 2012