Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Our campus is simmering with grief and fear. We are confronting the losses of Meg Spencer and Anthony Chiarenza, the recent, unspecified threat of violence, and more broadly, the fragility of our own lives here.
I’m scared. And I’m worried I’m not doing things right. I want to give more of myself to and spend more time with the people I love here. I’m just not sure how to be both a good person and a good student.
Yesterday, I talked to a friend who felt hugely distressed about recent events on campus. He said that he had woken up on Monday at his regular time, 9a.m., and sat down at his desk, and opened his laptop. But, he said, “I tried to do my homework, but…I just couldn’t.”
He was upset, thinking “dark thoughts,” worrying about his friends, jumping at every noise down the hall. And for the first time in his life, he couldn’t do the work that was expected of him. He was shocked.
There are many of us, I wanted to say, who feel scared every day. There are many of us who grieve every day. We deal with chronic illness, despair, loneliness. We are working really, really hard. We’re acquainted with death. We are survivors of trauma, of violence of all sorts that is built into society. We are at risk due to our colors, cultures, genders, sexualities, economic backgrounds, faiths, and abilities. We are not machines. We cannot always do our homework. But we must.
Ideally we can have the privilege of studying ourselves, of learning about these systems and about our own suffering and working both in and out of class on becoming stronger. Ideally we can read and connect with other voices and start seeing everything differently. Ideally we would not feel that aching divide between ourselves as students and as people. But this is not always the case.
We need to start talking about all of that “life stuff,” as another friend put it, that keeps intruding on our “academic stuff.” We need to be talking about wellness, and we need to be doing it intersectionally, in ways that acknowledge how a loss in someone’s past, and their relationship to God, and their chronic pain, and their beautiful mind all might contribute to this young person sitting down and being unable to begin their homework.
And then maybe we can start talking about what kind of support we can give each other, in those times when we are not just trying to survive, that will enlarge rather than diminish each other. I want to share three quotes that I keep coming back to about surviving and loving.
The first is from Lois Lowry, the author of “The Giver.” In that novel, the protagonist, Jonas, has just been exposed to human suffering for the first time, and he is reeling from this taste of pain. The citizens of his community are expected to report all of their feelings at a dinnertime ritual, but Jonas suddenly finds himself unable to articulate:
“But now Jonas had experienced real sadness. He had felt grief. He knew that there was no quick comfort for emotions like those. These were deeper and they did not need to be told. They were felt.”
Lowry herself has experienced a great amount of grief, and she has said that sharing it through words has rarely been possible. Instead, what she needs in others is what she describes as a “fellow traveler,” someone to walk through the mystery with.
The second is from a friend of mine. She wrote it by hand, in a letter:
“Being good is when someone is able to emphasize the parts of themselves that are most painful or difficult to accept – the parts of themselves that could make them mean or bitter or selfish or hopeless or isolated – and embrace them in such a way that makes the person more strong and wise and empathetic, more able to be a help and inspiration to others who are struggling with the same thing.”
I believe that is not just a privilege when we can do this, but an honor.
The final quote is from writer Christian Wiman, who describes a childhood tragedy in his essay “The Limit.” At the end of the piece, he writes:
“And yet I’ve come to believe, and in rare moments can almost feel, that like an illness some vestige of which the body keeps to protect itself, pain may be its own reprieve; that the violence that is latent within us may be, if never altogether dispelled or tamed, at least acknowledged, defined, and perhaps by dint of the love we feel for our lives, for the people in them and for our work, rendered into an energy that need not be inflicted on others or ourselves, an energy we may even be able to use; and that for those of us who have gone to war with our own minds there is yet hope for what Freud called “normal unhappiness,” wherein we might remember the dead without being haunted by them, give to our lives a coherence that is not “closure,” and learn to live with our memories, our families, and ourselves amid a truce that is not peace.”
I hope that by traveling together we can help each other build stories about this time with tenderness and respect, stories that we can live with.
We need more love. I need more love. More songs, more holding, more listening with our whole bodies. We have to love each other before we can fulfill our responsibilities as students and staff at the College. We can begin by studying, for each other, how to be good.