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Death on the Charles

By Guillermo S. Hava
Guillermo S. Hava ’23, a Crimson Editorial comp director, lives in Winthrop House.

I remember a story about the Charles River.

I used to go there all the time — before the pandemic, before the shutdowns, before the skies turned bright orange and everything came to a halt. I used to go there with friends — we’d sit on the ledge, drink bitter, overpriced wine, smoke. One of us was a student at the Harvard-Berklee dual program. Sometimes she sang for us, beautiful, chilling songs, laughing nervously between verses. We’d clap, laugh, talk. Complain about our days and our families and our classes. And we’d lean right over the bridge, staring into the river below.

There’s a bunch of old Harvard traditions — you’re supposed to pee on John Harvard, hook up in the stacks, run naked at primal scream, and jump from Weeks Bridge into the Charles. They’re exactly the kind of moves that seem like a great idea when you find yourself bored at 4 a.m. in the Yard; the ones that make great videos and terrible stories.

And indeed, over the course of the year we as a group got to all of them — all but one. We never jumped into the Charles.

Sure, we got close. We peered over the edge, alternating between daring each other to take the leap and stopping drunken friends from doing so. The water level always seemed too low, the warmer spring months on campus never arrived. We made plans, time and time again, to jump the very next weekend. But we never did.

We never jumped because of a story, a true story. The story of a young student who’d tried and failed, who’d hurt himself as he landed and drowned. We never got the specifics — it had become the kind of tale that changes with every repetition. But the idea itself, the tragedy, was burned into our brains. It instilled not so much fear as respect; a sense that something distinctly real and soul-crushing had happened right there

Over the past few weeks, I’ve found myself thinking about that story. Our reticence seemed outsized — a single tragedy doesn’t tell you that much about a situation’s safety. We might have dived into the river and emerged intact; the whole thing could have proven less dangerous and more sanitary than climbing that remarkably (and regrettably) slippery statue.

Yet the story was powerful. Not in spite of being confined to a single victim, but precisely because of it. The student wasn’t another number within a broader bridge-jumping statistic; he wasn’t part of an abstract idea of routine safety practices. He was an individual human being, the one who jumped into the Charles — and he was dead.

Our ability to sympathize with others, to fully recognize their humanity, works in weird ways. We can process individual deaths — we can try to grasp their full weight, to understand the scope of the loss. But what happens when a single death becomes a thousand, a hundred thousand, a million? What happens when a single, preventable event ravages entire countries for months?

It reminds me of that feeling you sometimes get when you’re walking down a crowded street. You stare at a bunch of people and, for a fraction of a second, you understand their humanity; you realize they are individuals concerned about their own days, their own families, their own jobs. But we don’t have the bandwidth to deal with that forever, and so we quickly revert to a functional, lifeless perspective. The cashier exists only as a cashier, and only at that specific point in time and space; that guy with the dog is little more than a piece of the scenery: a prop, an extra.

When it comes to death, we act in a remarkably similar way. We can deal with the loss of one person fully, in-depth, for a contained period of time; but trying to do so with a thousand a day is simply unbearable. Some studies suggest that that fact isn’t incidental, but rather a defense mechanism; a way to avoid being completely overcome by emotion. In other words, we care less about deaths as they rise because not doing so could prove entirely unsustainable. We see the kid at the river, we really see him. His death is, for a lack of a better word, emotionally concentrated. Nine hundred and thirty thousand deaths (and counting) are not. And so goes the old dictum: one death is a tragedy; a million are a statistic. And so, the Charles inspires respect, but wearing a mask seems like an annoying (albeit crucial) chore.

But when lives become numbers and numbers become large enough to be meaningless our brains’ defense mechanism renders us apathetic. Is there really any sizable emotional shift when a death toll increases from one to two hundred thousand? To a million? We watch the numbers rise, day after day, unfazed; we study curves and graphs, not stories.

Amid this massive — nearly incomprehensible — loss of human life, we must not lose our own humanity by erasing that of those who have died. We can not become numb to the sheer pain and anger that ought to be moving all of us. We have to let it hurt.

Guillermo S. Hava ’23, a Crimson Editorial comp director, lives in Winthrop House.

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