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Courage To Be Vulnerable

By Javhlan Amgalanbaatar
Javhlan Amgalanbaatar ’23, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Canaday Hall.

At the First-Year Retreat during Wintersession this January, about fifty freshmen and facilitators were sitting in a dark hall, each holding an electric candle with a switch to turn it on and off. Then each student, one by one, shared what they were grateful for and turned the candle on. When the circle ended, they shared what they struggled with in the first semester and turned the candle off. In the end, everyone said what they were looking forward to in the upcoming semester and once again, the room gradually had all the candles lit.

What struck me most about this experience was that during my short time at Harvard, even though I wanted to so badly, I never experienced this deep level of connection with my fellow classmates on my struggles and aspirations at Harvard on this big of a scale.

Amid the never-ending string of “How are you?” and “Very good” that occurs on a daily basis, there is often limited space to discuss what is really happening in our lives. I began to notice that I preferred saying that I was “stressed” rather than admit that I was lonely and would rather say I was “tired” than sad. I remember sitting in my room during first semester, scrolling through the “Harvard Confessions” Facebook page and only there did I see admissions of any kind of struggle, rather than in my day-to-day interactions with others. It seemed like it was considered more acceptable to be exhausted to death rather than to feel normal emotions of loneliness or sadness at Harvard.

I have to emphasize that of course this was not the case with every single interaction. There were vulnerable and open conversations that helped me feel deep connection and people who were willing to go beyond the usual surface level in our interactions. Those people and conversations were integral to my growth for the last few months and helped me feel connected and at home. Nevertheless, the predominant Harvard culture seemed to disregard vulnerability as “weak” and preferred that we disguise ourselves in the endless workload.

This was why hearing my fellow freshmen share their difficulties from the tumultuous first semester and what they are grateful for despite that affected me so deeply; it was an experience I was looking for all along. The whole retreat was an amazing chance to reflect and get to know others in a more intimate and relaxed setting just before the semester. Sessions like this made me realize how much we need the same kind of openness on campus.

I am a fan of Brené Brown and her pursuit of wholehearted life of vulnerability, courage, and openness. One of the primary messages she sends through her books and talks is that vulnerability is not a weakness but is a form of courage. Genuine connections and all the good feelings of joy and belonging seem to arise from letting ourselves be seen without filters. Raw. Just as we are, with all our imperfections and struggles. Brené’s words encapsulate this idea when she says, “In one of its earliest forms, the word courage meant ‘To speak one's mind by telling all one's heart.’ Over time, this definition has changed, and today, we typically associate courage with heroic and brave deeds...This definition fails to recognize the inner strength and level of commitment required for us to actually speak honestly and openly about who we are and about our experiences — good and bad. Speaking from our hearts is what I think of as ‘ordinary courage.’”

It takes incredible bravery to let ourselves be seen and it takes open-mindedness and empathy to accept when others do the same as well.

I hope that we can cultivate vulnerability in our lives, whether it be by opening up to someone or listening to how our friends are really feeling. Step by step. Even though it may not happen overnight, we could start building a little space for being vulnerable and genuinely sharing at Harvard, even without a candle that turns on and off.

Javhlan Amgalanbaatar ’23, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Canaday Hall.

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