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On Real Life

By Daniel Z. Wilson

One afternoon two Aprils ago I found myself with an unexpected hour of freedom. Section had been cancelled. The light had a golden hue; the Square was warm and awash in color. The sun, piercing through the red oaks in the Yard, made it seem like the Wigglesworth bricks were glowing crimson.

Brochure Harvard.

I stepped into the Harvard Book Store, overcome by a spasm of disbelief. It all fit together: rows of books for unfettered browsing; students trekking up the slight incline of Plympton Street and skirting along Massachusetts Avenue, walking with purpose towards the Yard, to weave in and out of ancient paths and buildings weighted with history. All of the clichés suddenly felt real. The Seamus Heaney poem emblazoned onto my admissions packet had come to life.

Everything else was so far away. There were no family members at home to worry about, or commitments to honor, or big problems to consider. It was a welcome moment of self-induced ignorance. Until, standing in the philosophy aisle, I noticed an older man limping towards his wife. His khaki pants had turned brown. Dark streaks ran down his legs. He had soiled himself, completely and unmistakably. “We need to get you home,” his wife said, her hand cupped around his upper arm.

I left the store immediately. I was embarrassed by the fatuousness of my neatly constructed, idealized Harvard moment. I had, however briefly, created a world where unpleasant things didn’t happen. I called my mother as I escaped toward the Quad. I had to tell someone, even though it felt voyeuristic, sensational. It felt childish: Gee mom, bad things happen, don’t they? “That’s old age,” she said, matter-of-factly. “That’s real life.”

We often separate “Harvard” and “real life.” It makes sense, perhaps, to divorce the two. Real life is a functionally useful term for a place with mortgages and paychecks and uncomfortable family gatherings, a place without three prepared meals a day, without friends who wax philosophical at a dorm party at 2 a.m. But this separation also implicitly allows us to neglect the uneven texture of human experience. If real life exists elsewhere, then its full weight must remain outside Harvard’s gates. The proverbial “Harvard bubble” doesn’t just abstract us from the painful realities of what stands outside of it. It also homogenizes individual experience.

This is a place of privilege; by any practicable measure, our quality of life here is extraordinarily high. We’re protected – we can neatly seal ourselves off and immerse ourselves in the otherworldly pursuits of scholarship and success. Yet this separation makes the moments when we fall short harder to confront: it feels like a betrayal of the brochure ideal. Amidst failure, the Yard on a pleasant afternoon becomes just as oppressive as it was glorious.

When we do talk about not feeling like our best selves, we rely on narrow binaries. We’re fine, or not fine. We’re stressed, or not stressed. The content of our lives is explained away by generic adjectives we never bother to unpack.

Telling each other that Harvard is hard, that we’re all stressed and pushed to meet some unimaginably high standard, trivializes. It creates a reduced, artificially common experience. It becomes just as impersonal as the feeling that Harvard is perfect and we’re not.

But if we’re looking to lessen the gulf between what feels insulating and what feels realistic, to step out of the bubble, I think we often take the wrong approach.

Life here is a series of unhistoric moments punctuated with a sense of awe. We write off the seemingly insignificant, but it carries enormous richness. It’s noticing, somehow for the first time, that when a friend is happy her words suddenly sound as if they are made of laughter, that she swallows giggles in between breaths. It’s realizing that when your roommate has made progress on his thesis he rhythmically flicks his hands back and forth as he explains, his eyes expanding and contracting as he speaks, his excitement at something that you are now a part of.

It’s tempting to tell the story of our time at Harvard through a series of seminal events. Housing Day, that one really fun formal, that semester of great grades. But the times we feel closest to one another often look meaningless on the surface. We don’t need to look far to find real life, and in fact it has little to do with Harvard at all.  It’s a trip to CVS, where choosing detergent leads to an anecdote about childhood. It’s a shortcut through the Science Center, to avoid the cold, where we can finally tell someone what it was like to fail that exam in Hall C.

Real life happens on that tenuous plane of existence where the easy answers we give ourselves don’t fit, where we don’t pretend that everything makes sense; when, instead of telling a friend that his stress is like everyone else’s, we listen, ask questions, and show a desire to understand. Relationships are built through presence, from the courage to be vulnerable, through the tender moments that we don’t expect. The sum of the seemingly irrelevant moments we occupy is always greater than the sum of the momentous ones, whether we are at Harvard or not. By neglecting them, or by universalizing our experience, we run the risk of forgetting where real life is lived.

Daniel Z. Wilson ’14, a history and science concentrator in Currier House, is a co-director of Room 13, a peer counseling group.

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