Not only is this sense of finality elitist, it is simply incorrect: Yale is yet a beginning of many beginnings, another step in the lifelong process of becomings. More importantly, the poster is a reflection of the dominant packaged narrative that produces the ever-pleasant salesman affability that pervades our campus. Speaking the language of the advertisement, Dean Spooner recently urged students in an e-mail to assume the “Strength that comes with being present and forthcoming in every precious moment we are at Yale.” In demanding that we are totally and fully “here” in the way Yale’s maximal ideology dictates, we equate “presence” with cheerfulness. We create assertive emotional expectations that deny the legitimacy of negativity and stimulate a straining environment of cheery social performance. The Yale-centric narcissism furthers the self-serving (and self-harming) culture of stress and productivity, whereby we feel we must exploit every second and every interaction here.
My close friend David died in a hiking accident this summer. He was planning to visit me only six days later. David is one of the most beautiful souls I’ve ever known. He was kind. He was patient. In an era marked by irony and detachment, David was remarkably committed, audacious, always sincere and truthfully appreciative. Honestly, I cannot describe the sense of shock and loss and pain I have suffered, nor is this article the place to attempt that. And two months later, as I continue to find myself vulnerable, returning to campus has been decidedly difficult for me. There have been moments where I have not quite felt the “strength” to meet the emotional demands of Yale.
I recently saw the admissions poster again and wondered if the conspicuous asterisk was a qualifier for students like me who did not feel altogether “here,” in the prescribed sense. I cynically imagined a fine print that read, “You may not be here if you struggle with mental health concerns, if your childhood friend has tragically died.”
The truth is, there are a number of us who do not feel entirely present on campus. As I spend more time at Yale, I’m sensitive to what seems like a growing number of students who have experienced depression, or simply disillusion with the ever-buzzing campus culture. But those advocating for undying exuberance at Yale tend to regard unhappiness as a disease, and therapy or a leave of absence as quick-and-easy solutions, not another strenuous process. The often well-intentioned desire for everyone to always be happy inflicts small acts of violence that discipline our emotions, and we in turn begin to police ourselves. In anxiously reproducing the order of okayness, our campus stigmatizes mental health, creating a suffocating atmosphere for those of us who need to experience Yale at our own pace.
Over the past three weeks, I’ve been the victim of this limited and limiting notion of personal well-being. But I’ve found the most helpful way of grieving for David is simply feeling what I need to feel, and recognizing that my suffering is legitimate—in fact, healthy and important. I try not to blame myself for leaving a party early to be alone, or stepping outside the classroom for a few minutes, as I did the other day, when class discussion on death became too heavy, too recognizable. I’ve come to accept, even embrace, my suffering. Through facing and processing my emotions more honestly, I validate them and challenge the common conception of suffering as shameful and pathological.
I don’t think I would want to be in a place without suffering since through connecting with our suffering we are able to empathize with the suffering of others. We grow more compassionate, thoughtful, gentle, and tender, much like David was. We overcome the anxious desire to “solve” and bring instant closure to other people’s problems; in fact, maybe the best way we can help each other is by creating a warm and loving space so we can each ultimately find closure on our own. Perhaps you are here, but you might not be here, or possibly you are caught somewhere in between. And I’ve learned that’s okay.