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The Third Person on the Sidewalk

By Labiba Uddin, Contributing Opinion Writer
Labiba Uddin ’25 lives in Canaday Hall. Her column “BeLonging” appears on alternate Tuesdays.

When I first realized that my birthday was on a Saturday this year, I panicked.

Having a birthday so early on in the school year is both a blessing and a curse, especially freshman year — not enough time for the workload to get too tough yet just enough time for everyone to get into their rhythm academically and, more dauntingly, socially. Making friends is already a difficult endeavor with such a large pool of people, each diverse in their own way. The pressure to do so quickly and effortlessly makes the process even harder.

Thus, in the first few weeks of school, I resigned myself to the fact that I probably would not spend my birthday surrounded by the familiar faces and easy laughter as I was typically used to. There was the knowledge that this was my first birthday without my family and friends, and then there was the fear that I would force myself to make plans that I wouldn’t even enjoy. I took a risk and made such plans anyway.

I can’t say for sure if my risk paid off. On one hand, it was a beautiful day with wonderful people I had just met. On the other hand, I couldn’t help but feel that they were all enjoying the day more than I was and my mind kept drifting back to better ways I could have been spending my time, even if that meant doing homework alone in my room on my birthday weekend.

There is nothing that makes one feel more misplaced than being physically with a group but mentally elsewhere.

I think we are all familiar with the third-person-on-the-sidewalk phenomenon: when you are walking with two other friends but are being pushed aside, literally or figuratively, off the sidewalk and onto the grass. But typically when I walk in the grass, it is on someone else’s street, somewhere I had already entertained the possibility of feeling like an outsider peering in. Yet at the beginning of this semester, I was walking in the grass on my own block.

I felt disoriented in the setting I not only chose to be in here at Harvard, but actively orchestrated for myself. As much as I knew it wasn’t true, I couldn’t help but feel that everyone else was more everything than I could be — smarter, cooler, more adaptive — and I felt silly for even hoping for a chance in their company. At least for me, it was this insecurity alone that usually pushed me onto the grass.

But fortunately, throughout the past two months of transitioning to college, I have slowly found my way back onto the sidewalk. Though I came in expecting to be constantly bombarded with the fear of not being enough to form friendships, in a seemingly contradictory way, the sheer range of amazing talents and personalities has actually soothed me as they are almost always coupled with humility and genuinity. I am grateful that I have distanced myself from the feelings that followed me around on my birthday and have come to accept that I am capable of being liked for simply being myself, even if it took me a while to get there.

In one word, this atmosphere is refreshing. The beauty of Harvard, in my eyes, is that I have not just found a group of people that I feel included in, but several.

The downside to so many amazing opportunities to connect is that I find myself struggling to balance and maintain my place in each group, so much so that I am afraid of not belonging with any of them.

The “FOMO” culture was present before we even stepped on campus — the Class of 2025 organized its own pre-orientation program, the First-Year Open Multidisciplinary Orientation or “F.O.M.O.,” in an attempt to mitigate students’ fear of being left out. Many of my classmates still express their discomfort with the intense social demands of some clubs. I realized the burden of FOMO the most during the recent midterms cycle. I felt a twinge of guilt — not surprisingly — every time I turned down an invitation but surprisingly, also a burst of relief. The constant social upkeep had effectively drained me and I was silently very grateful for some time for just myself. Now, to intentionally escape the pressure, I sometimes opt to walk in the grass. There are days that I simply say no, even if I’m free, because I believe that time could be better spent alone.

I feel like prioritizing time alone over superfluous social preening is something that is mostly stigmatized if not completely overlooked. Sometimes, the place where you belong is not with others but with yourself, and that is not only normal but healthy and necessary. I am still trying to navigate where I want to fit into the Harvard social bubble and how to ensure that I don’t let myself get lost in the process.

I hope to get to a point where I don’t think twice about what day of the week my birthday falls on, only about what I wish to do to make my own heart content, whether that’s strolling on the sidewalk or reveling in the grass.

Labiba Uddin ’25 lives in Canaday Hall. Her column “BeLonging” appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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