Emptiness is a virtue.
Usually when something is empty, we think of it as a missed opportunity. An untrustworthy person has either an empty heart or an empty wallet. Horror movies are filled with empty hallways and empty acting. And John Harvard is a product, at least in part, of empty bladders.
But the day on which I am writing this is Yom Kippur. Even though I’m agnostic, I still fast. There is no real reason why, except for maybe something akin to the masochism that Harvard College Munch provides information about. And yet, as I’m realizing after writing that sentence how much I really want to munch on things and how “munch” I…damnit. Let me just get to the point.
Today, on an empty stomach, performing an empty gesture, with an empty mind incapable of thought beyond food, I did something that I’ve been doing a lot now—looking at nothing. As a sophomore, I’m a new resident of Winthrop House, with a room that overlooks a beautiful courtyard of grass, shade, and benches that remain eternally unoccupied. It is like being in the Yard during winter—except instead of looking like the aftermath of a war between campus services and campus services, it’s nice. The sunlight passes over the river and through the trees, enlivening the grass below and painting it with different shades of life. That is, until the sun goes down, when I can finally eat again.
Even with my tired mind and empty stomach, the courtyard is a manageable piece of art—one that I can feel comfortable staring at, even as it is being made and changed. And I’ve realized that it’s a symbol for a change I’ve seen in myself and other sophomores who have moved to a House this year—a change that allows us to find the true substance and value of the emptiness missing from Harvard’s freshman year.
As we all know, freshman year starts with Convocation: a welcoming of the new class, during which the president of the University calls everyone failures. Or at least, she wants them to fail.
“Don’t cling to the familiar,” said Faust during Convocation this month. “Let the next four years be spent learning how to fail, or at least how to be imperfect.”
“The path to knowledge is humility,” she continued. “Be comfortable with being uncomfortable.” The idea is to make enough mistakes and do enough during your years here to come up with a good answer to the question Erin D. Drake ’14 posed in her convocation speech: “What are you going to do with the privilege of attending Harvard College?”
The thing is, though, I don’t like failing. And I have a feeling the 5.8 percent admitted, 65 percent virginal Class of 2017 doesn’t either. But still, urged on by the president and others, we go out and try to fail for the rest of the year—and I personally was pretty successful at it.
I signed up for every activity, got on just enough email lists to make me ignore all my emails, and felt guilty that I didn’t do enough. I tried not just to fail, but to fail epically. And often, I felt a new pressure I had never felt before—at any moment, I was either failing at being the “ultimate freshman failure” or, even worse, succeeding at it, which meant I was failing (feel free to reread that weird sentence, in case its meaning failed you the first time).
The advice of the administration, the success of my peers, and even the tourists who took pictures of my home, all became pressures. They asked, “What are you going to do with the privilege of attending Harvard College?” I needed to find an answer.
The results were pretty easy to see. I felt guilty a lot. My time back at home started to seem more valuable than my time at school. And the op-eds I wrote for The Crimson were all mostly geared to the theme of calming down, like I was calming myself down.
Maybe it’s loopiness from hunger. But I feel like something really is different this time. The meaningless beginning-of-the-year questions have gone from “What dorm are you in? Where are you from? What are you thinking about studying?” to simply “How was your summer?” And the view out my window has gone from the Yard to a yard, in a House I can identify with and an identity I’ve already formed, in a familiar place rather than a new one, and in a time I’ve given to myself rather than a “precious” time that was given to me.
Students come here because they know how to explore new interests. They know what they’ve already accomplished. And they are willing not only to shape themselves, but also to be themselves, without the pressure of outside forces. So, after a year of self-conscious searching, I want to finally answer the question.
“What are you going to do with the privilege of attending Harvard College?”
Sit by this window, staring outwards and observing, while trying to appreciate the quality of the emptiness around me in this column. In other words, I’m going to try to fail at failing.
That’s strange. I guess that means I’m trying to succeed.
Dashiell F. Young-Saver ’16, a Crimson editorial writer, is an English concentrator in Winthrop House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.