It was a fancy-cheese-platter kind of dinner party with conversation as light and bubbly as the champagne. As we sat politely, the conversation slowly took a turn for the worse, from general groanings about President Donald Trump to local L.A. politics and finally to the homelessness crisis, all while retaining an airy detached tone.
It became too much for Lisa, the woman next to me. She interrupted, agitated, “But it doesn’t matter what we do! We talk and donate, but nothing will change unless big people start to care about little people. And they never will.” We awkwardly sipped our drinks.
Deep down, I felt comforted by Lisa’s outpouring. It meant I wasn’t alone feeling an inflated responsibility towards local, national, and international news and angered by privileged apathetic political conversation. So what was the remedy? After stammering a little, I countered: Even if the outcome is the same, the value of having conversation contributes positively. Just like voting is a contribution. She didn’t buy it. She locked eyes with me and said, “Those things are fine, but when you have world-wide systematic problems and corporations, you lose hope of positive change. How do you stay optimistic?” By the look in her eyes, it seemed more a question for herself than for me.
At the time I was taken aback, but I had felt her pessimism. I used to be intimidated by politics until my last summer in Shanghai. I tentatively started listening to daily news podcasts and learning about things like “subpoena” and “Robert Mueller.” It was easy going until news broke about the child separation policy at the border. I had a crisis. I wondered, did my tears have any meaning on the other side of the world? What was the point of conversations with fellow Americans abroad if the only remnant was a more acute feeling of helplessness? Even if I was in America, what would I do, share more Facebook articles and have more useless conversations?
Lisa’s outburst also reminded me of conversations I’ve had at Harvard. There is deep pessimism here as well, the build-up of resistance to living wages and proper healthcare for HUDS workers, resistance to creating an ethnic studies major, resistance to divesting funds from fossil fuel and prison industries, among other issues. Sometimes, these systems designed for humans don’t feel like they show any humanity. How do we stay optimistic?
I was thinking about none of this the day before the first Democratic presidential debates. The political media company I work for was preparing for a late night and I wanted to ground myself before the mayhem. So, when I saw an online coupon for floating in a sensory deprivation tank — a solution of 1,000 pounds of Epsom salt, devoid of sound or light — my inner Marianne Williamson jumped up.
Within a few seconds of floating, my mind drew a map of everything I was trying to escape because it wanted them in the tank. My thoughts relentlessly flung back to unresolved feelings: a heated conversation with a friend, imposter syndrome at work, growing numbness to news. I lost feeling of dimensionality and was suddenly washed with existential fear. I felt vulnerable in this dark tank like a baby in a womb. I wondered if this was what the afterlife was like. What does it matter if I got the 4.0 GPA or cried tears on the other side of the world or endeavored for greatness in this darkness? There was nothing.
My breath was my only sensory input, so I listened, rapt, and at that moment I resolved to love. If in death everyone was alone, I would fill my lifetime with cherished relationships, sacrifices for justice, and legacies for a kinder world. I imagined the water turning into a pool of golden compassion. When I left this chamber, I would embrace the world with open arms, come what may.
I began to feel dizzy, then distracted. I writhed as I looked up at the faint stars (were they on the ceiling or in the back of my mind?) and felt again loneliness. I mused, how do we carry on if no one could feel our individual pain, even with words or empathy? America had lost so much empathy, it seemed our ongoing crises of climate change, drug addiction and so forth were doomed to continue in ceaseless waves. In this distorted political climate, these disasters will haunt us by feeding on broken, underfunded infrastructure and lessons never learned. At that moment, I realized I could only depend on myself, not any bureaucracy or anyone else. Intuition and self-preservation were my highest truths. Self-love was my new philosophy.
I floated there, between thoughts of narcissism and altruism, solipsism and utilitarianism. It felt urgent to choose one way of living or another, but both sides felt heavy with truth.
How do we care about the big things while taking care of our individual selves? Loving people is hard; loving populations harder still. But because I can’t force others to act how I feel is sensible, I can only better myself to be an example. To fight the slogging bureaucracy of Harvard and the corrupt, racist Trump administration, I hold myself with integrity. I acknowledge my weaknesses and learn from criticism. In that way, maybe I can love others by loving myself. Earlier, Lisa essentially asked, should we engage or disengage? So maybe if I engage — with an awareness of my limited energy and resources — I realize devoting myself to societal causes and close friendships reflects what I love in myself. I volunteer to help Chinatown residents take their citizenship exam because I remember helping my mother with her exam over 10 years ago. Being a teacher is an act of love towards her. In this way, maybe I love myself by loving others.
I quietly climbed out of the tank feeling weak. I showered off the salt and put on my clothes. My mind was still floating in the tank, but still, I walked onto the busy street and called my mom.
Jerrica H. Li ’21 is a Comparative Literature concentrator in Adams House. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.