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Harvard's Whiny One-Upmanship

One easy step to a less obnoxious and healthier Harvard

By Eric T. Justin

I usually use this column to discuss the Middle East, but today I would like to raise a very First World issue. It is one that aggravates student life at Harvard, yet we all have unwittingly participated in it in some form or another.

By way of example, here is a conversation I overheard yesterday:

“How’s it going?”

“You know, getting four hours of sleep, but whatever. This week sucks. I have two midterms, a paper, a date event, and elections for this club I’m in.”

“Yeah, last week was like that for me and next week will be even worse. But that’s Harvard, right?”

This conversation may not seem abnormal to you. In fact, since arriving at Harvard over three years ago, I have sadly grown accustomed to hearing conversations like this. Their distinguishing feature is that they mask bragging with complaining. And let’s face it: A great deal of Harvard’s social interactions fit this mold.

The student sleeping for four hours a night was not actually complaining about her sleep schedule.  She was seeking the recognition of her peer. Presumably, the student has no intention of dropping her entirely voluntary commitments, nor is she actually seeking the advice of her friend for how to balance her responsibilities. As for the “But that’s Harvard, right?”: We have all heard that question or some variation of it many times here.

The obvious implication of that question is that if you are not filling every second of your time with Harvard’s multitude of academic and extracurricular opportunities, then you are missing out. From this perspective, Harvard is not a place for fulfillment, but rather a place for over-fulfillment. In this surreal world, free time is sinful and busyness is next to godliness.

There are many costs to Harvard’s whiny one-upmanship. I will highlight two.

The first cost is to student wellbeing. Complaining about life’s challenges can be healthy at times, but if you find that the great majority of your social interactions are more or less group whining sessions, then you are probably either unhappy or unknowingly contributing to someone else’s unhappiness.

Let me be clearer: If your lifestyle, classes, social circles, etc. are making you unhappy, then by all means reach out to family, friends, or one of Harvard’s many mental health resources. Being able to communicate about life’s difficulties is essential to good health. However, there is a difference between the quasi-bragging whining that replaces conversations for many Harvard students and genuine calls for help. Furthermore, any blurriness between those two types of communication is exacerbated by the proliferation of the former. Harvard’s whininess is symptomatic of a culture that makes the depressed feel that the lifestyle that is depressing them is normal. At least that was the case for me, as well as many others I have spoken to.

A second cost of Harvard’s whiny one-upmanship is that it replaces intellectual engagement with shallow interactions. Discussions of academics at Harvard should not revolve around an individual’s workload, but rather on the fascinating topics we are privileged to spend four years devoting ourselves to understanding. Likewise, conversations on extracurricular activities should emphasize the insights and skills they provide us instead of the sleep we lose to participate in them.

Before penning your “To the editors” (or, more realistically, anonymous online comments), let me provide two painfully obvious caveats. First of all, this whining-bragging exists elsewhere. Unlike Harvard students, though, when an adult’s social interactions are reducible to whiny one-upmanship, that adult will find social interactions hard to come by. Second, Harvard has many students that break out of this cultural mold, and the descriptions I provided above are generalizations—but accurate ones, nonetheless.

So as a reforming whiner, here is some advice as the semester heads towards its final weeks. When you are exhausted and need to complain, as we all do occasionally, then do it. However, do not make others feel that your exhaustion or busyness is some sort of virtue. Moreover, rather than complaining about that final paper you need to write, discuss the paper’s thesis with a friend.

Also, yes, I did just write a column whining about whining. Top that.

Eric T. Justin ’13, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Currier House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.

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