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Owning My Privilege, Owning My Pain

By Daniel Lu, Contributing Opinion Writer
Daniel Lu ’20 is a joint concentrator in Physics and Philosophy in Lowell House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.

When I talk about my mental health, I still feel uncomfortable. I feel heat wash through my cheeks. “I think I definitely overcommitted this semester but I really enjoy my classes.” I feel my heart pumping faster and I choke before I say more.

I want to talk about what it’s like to walk into class an hour late because I’ve been crying on the phone with my parents. I want to tell them that for me, college includes the shame of asking for extensions since I’ve been staying up till sunrise obsessing over my mistakes. But I catch myself. It’s easier, for them and for me, to not make a scene.

I always feel like I’m talking out of turn.

To me, the pressure is two-fold. First, I worry the people around me will see me as less stable, my perspective too emotional and my voice less valid. But even if some people do think this way, I know they’re wrong — no one is less human because of their mental health, and depression doesn’t make someone’s opinion less legitimate.

I don’t know how to answer my second worry though — that I don’t have a right to talk about my experiences. Maybe I’m just being overdramatic or self-pitying. Were my experiences really that bad? When the people around me give me so much love and joy, how can I complain? I worry that I don’t have the right to think and speak about my mental health issues as real pain because I know how privileged I am.

By listening to the stories of my peers at Harvard, I’ve learned that I’m lucky to have a loving, welcoming family to go back to during school breaks. By working in the Chinatown community, I’ve realized that I’m privileged to never worry about being forced out of my home. By taking seriously the atrocities that occur around the world every day, I know that I did nothing to deserve the resources and happiness I’ve been born into. Therefore I just don’t feel like whatever pain I have is worth caring about.

But I want to care about my pain. I want to be able to say that the sadness I struggled with was real, and no matter what resources or legs-up I’ve been given, I still deserve to let myself just feel bad instead of writing off my pain as mere entitlement.

It doesn’t feel that easy to me, though. If I impulse buy a new shirt to cheer myself up after a bad exam instead of buying a meal for someone in need, I feel like I’m deciding that my stress comes before someone else’s hunger. I feel like I’m saying that my own pain is more important to address, and I just don’t think it is. I don’t know if it’s good or even acceptable for me to put my own emotions first because of the privileges I have in life.

How should I reconcile my privilege and my pain?

People tell me that self-care is practical, that neglecting my physical or mental health too much hurts my productivity, so even if I feel obliged by my privilege to work for the good of others, self-care may be a necessary step to fulfilling that responsibility. Even if that’s true sometimes, part of me can’t help thinking that there’s a point at which it becomes self-centered to worry too much about myself. I don’t know what is or isn’t a big deal for others, but reflecting on my own experiences, I don’t think there was any need to fixate on my sadness about not getting into an a cappella group, for instance.

If there’s the chance that my struggles just aren’t that serious, then I don’t want to focus on myself at the expense of caring for others. So what should I do?

Listening to the people around me has made me realize that not believing that I deserve to feel sad is just another way of devaluing myself. According to the American Psychiatric Association, “excessive and inappropriate guilt” is a symptom of depression. There’s no reason to feel guilty for feeling sad, to blame myself for my privilege and my pain, parts of my life that are outside of my control. I earnestly want to help others, but the painful things in my life are a part of me, just like suffering is a part of so many other people. That shared experience of pain is exactly why I don’t have to put myself down to lift others up.

“I had a tough sophomore fall. I struggled with my mental health a lot, and I wanted to give up on myself so many times. I don’t know exactly what you’re going through, but I think I know what you mean.”

Caring about my pain doesn’t have to be selfish. It’s a way that I can connect with others, and I’m starting to feel more comfortable saying that.

Daniel Lu ’20 is a joint concentrator in Physics and Philosophy in Lowell House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.

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