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Embrace the Absurd

A reading period reminder

By Sarah C. Stein Lubrano

Reading period starts today. This means that if you are a Harvard student, you are almost certainly generally juggling 150 percent of your personal capacity and doing each task somehow at 30 percent motivation. Maybe you aren’t sleeping. At times, you and your friends will trade frustrations: “I don’t even believe what I’m arguing,” they’ll say. Or, “This has zero application to real life.”

In my sophomore year, I offered to read and present Hegel for my tutorial. (I was just a little more young and stupid then than I am now, clearly.) I almost immediately realized that this was a serious mistake because Hegel writes things like: "But in developing itself independently to totality, the principle of particularity passes over into universality, and only there does it attain its truth and the right to which its positive actuality is entitled." For two hundred pages, I was curled up on the couch with the book on my head, hoping to absorb it directly by osmosis. Next to me, my roommate was trying to memorize a zillion Arabic verb tenses. To cheer us up, an older friend told us about how during a particularly bad study time in college, she had started jumping off desks with her roommates yelling: "We are birds! We are birds!"

So we did the same—only we made pterodactyl noises, which are superior. And Hegel (and my roommate's Arabic) still didn't make any more sense, but life was okay.

I’m a big fan of choosing classes that are meaningful, despite a few of my own frustrating experiences along the way. But still, at some point in the next two weeks you will likely end up doing something that is, by all estimates, utterly absurd. If it’s the not assignment itself, it’ll be the crunch time in which you accomplish it, or the amount of time you spend on Reddit before you begin. And ultimately, it’s all pretty much inherently absurd when you realize you’re worrying about letters on a piece of paper that already makes you elite. Meanwhile, other people are stressing over whether they will be fired, or if their child will be cured of an illness, or if their marriage will survive. Absurdity is looking over flashcards at four in the morning and calculating whether our GPAs will stay high enough to meet some imaginary standard.

Most of us know this. I write the column to remind, not instruct, as the saying goes. But here’s the reminder all the same: Among the majority of us worrying about the difference between a B+ and an A-, there are fellow students with far bigger problems. And one of the many reasons to keep some perspective for the next few weeks is that there are friends among us who are silently struggling with whether they’ll be forced to take a semester off, or how to grieve, or how to face an addiction, or something of a similarly dark and serious nature. When we open our mouths in the dining hall, we don’t want them to feel that everyone around them is a self-absorbed chattering box and that they are all alone.

The first secret that I’ve discovered between the time I was naïve enough to try to interpret Hegel and now is this: The best way to not quietly lose your mind under large amounts of stress (over something that is ultimately absurd) is to embrace the absurdity and run with it. The principle is already apparent in primal scream. (And in the various Secret Santa activities that my house is famous for. Or secret penguin/ninja/panda/politically-correct non-religious entity endeavors, if we must.)

And the second thing I’ve learned is to think about how much more seriously some people are struggling. It’s not necessary to imagine starving people across the globe—your roommates may be the most relevant example. So, before you head over to Harvard FML this week, try to enjoy the absurd. Enjoy it. I’m going to try; join me. Let us take this brief stretch of time that is ultimately meant just for us to learn and make it playful where it is exhausting and ridiculous. Life itself is full of darker and more difficult absurdities, and we will need our playfulness there. Then, with the same bright energy, let’s apply a little empathy and perspective to each other.

Happy studying.

Sarah C. Stein Lubrano ’13 is a social studies concentrator in Kirkland House. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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