Rejected Crimson Column: "Out of the Abyss"
This is part of a column application I submitted to The Harvard Crimson a few months ago. It was rejected, so I'm publishing it myself. Ha!
“If you gaze long enough into the abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.” –Friedrich Nietzsche
What happens to a Harvard student when they look into the world and see horror?
Of course, many of us saw horror before we got here. And some of us can’t see the horror at all, or decide it’s really happiness in disguise. But for those of us who are bad at shielding our eyes from it, a peculiar psychological event happens when confronted by a suffering simultaneous to our sunniness.
There comes a moment (with different frequencies and onsets for us all) when chasms become clear. The distance between the halls of Harvard and the nauseating inequalities of America and the world cannot be relegated to the back of one’s attention. A hashtag calls forth images of humans and children slain by police officers. A photo flashes across one’s newsfeed, of untold families broken apart and jailed and people killed by draconian immigration laws. The corpse of a Syrian child, his whole future before him, perished on a beach. Families evicted. Children funneled into prison. A wedding party killed by American drones in the Middle East. These images capture our attention persistently, often in waves, and they rightly fill our hearts with a sense of darkness and hopelessness – even if only for the briefest of moments, until we scroll along further, trying to forget, with mixed success. But the existence of these unspeakable yet deafening horrors cannot easily coexist alongside moments of Harvard success. They nip at the heels of the charmed things that happen to us here, apparitions floating with expressionless faces in the shadows of our bright and glowing world. In the echoes of our laughter can just barely be gleaned a low moan. Do you do this, in remembrance of me? they inquire.
Too many of us – not just at Harvard, but across the country – glimpse the canyons between people in this world and decide that a valid reason must exist for the plight of another human. For them, privilege does not reveal itself, much less the horrors that haunt it. For the rest of us unable to come up with a story neatly explaining why some have so much and others are caught in the hidden oily machinery driving today’s glittering world, it is common and quite logical to descend into confusion. As images of killing fields and prisons and violence and ghosts of the past swim interspersed through our consciousness among invite-only speaking engagements, faculty dinners, and dining halls filled with the wealthy or soon-to-be, worldviews become threatened. The stories we tell ourselves about our lives after Harvard and the things we deserve make no sense when a headline – “Refugees drown as two boats capsize off Greek islands” – clutches desperately, demanding our momentary attention.
These moments when horror collides messily with our varying privileges in this place are crushing. As young people, we did not create these horrors, and in the face of overwhelming evidence of great evil and structural terror, it becomes tempting – necessary, even – to shut out some things. When angels of death glide into our parties, haunt our study carrels in Widener, whisper into our ears as we banter in glowing dining halls, it is tempting to dismiss the idea that there could ever be a moral order to the world. To stop searching for justice, love, hope, and goodness, to convince ourselves that only naiveté and foolishness could convince someone to believe. We install defense mechanisms against the clutches of darkness that nip at our ankles, threatening to pull us into unchecked despair. Widespread confusion, hurt, anger, and fear flash across campus, sowing bitterness and insularity into our conversations and thoughts, exerting power over us in the most insidious way – by altering the very bounds of our thinking. When the horrors try to get us, we turn inward, away from the criticism and hostility that have come to define our society. Conversations about life and death matters disappear, or go underground. Disengagement and ambivalence abound, as people have become so afraid of confronting evil and dissonance head on. Bitterly, nihilistically, we laugh at the seeming pointlessness of it all, giving up and moving forward with our lives, trying to forget what we have seen.
There is an antidote to the poison this horrible world has sown among us; they are medicines that have been with us all along but have been pushed out of sight because their names are too painful to speak through our consuming bitterness – love and empathy. As Harvard students—no, as people living in 2016—we bristle at the mention of love, rolling our eyes to disguise the fear we feel at the prospect. The only way through these latter days is to open our hearts and love the people we have dismissed. How can we hope to eradicate the demons from this modern world without opening our hearts and minds to others on our own campus? We have confronted horror with cynicism and hate for as long as I can remember, in this country. It is time to reject hopelessness and darkness by doing something deceptively simple and unspeakably brave – love our neighbors. I am agnostic now, but these words have never been more useful to me.