Students at Harvard do not often discuss failure seriously. We sometimes speak ironically about failure, but we won’t talk about it earnestly. We deploy it self-mockingly, which leaves us neither vulnerable nor more self-aware. I wonder if there isn’t something unfortunate about this habit, something that could be gained by talking more earnestly about failure—what it means, if it matters, or what we might learn from it that could serve us well in the future.
Last week I experienced a bout of self-styled failure of the type that seems only possible for seniors on the cusp of “the real world” and all of its discontents. In the span of a few short days, I was rejected by three post-graduate fellowships, my thesis writing stalled in a pool of senseless intellectual muddle, and I realized that I would need to find a job in the coming months. I imagined that my job search would involve marketing myself with catchphrases like “critical thinker” and “well-versed in conceptual analysis and contextualization,” lest I end up back at my parents’ house come September.
What struck me most about all of this was the difficulty in talking about it with people at Harvard—even close friends. I don’t mean that I felt uncomfortable sharing it, about exposing my own ineptitude or disappointment: in fact, I almost always feel more comfortable sharing my failures than I do sharing my successes. Instead, I found that people at Harvard have difficulty holding a serious discussion about failure in the lives of our friends and classmates.
Our immediate response upon hearing about the failures of our friends is dismissal. We explain to them why it was a mistake, a fluke, an error that someone else made, anyone’s fault but theirs. We tell them, “You got passed over for that job/fellowship/law school spot? Impossible. You’re the most qualified person I know. Someone clearly made a mistake.” Or we immediately point to some possible future success and expound upon its inevitability: “What? You didn’t get the Brumblehall Fellowship for the Study of Medieval Armory? Well, you will definitely get the Pumpernickle Fellowship—I have no doubt in my mind.”
When my friends attempt to reassure me in this way, I always want to yell back, “Well, I do have doubt in my mind! In fact, I’m seriously doubting my chances right now, as I should be, since 100 people applied for the same spot as I did!” But I can’t yell that, and instead I inevitably shrug my shoulders and mumble something about odds and back-up plans. Of course, this is partially because exuberant praise embarrasses those of us brought up to value modesty. However, it is also because such extreme faith often seems misplaced, refusing as it does the possibility that we might just not be as successful as we had hoped.
I don’t mean to demonize this behavior; it is natural. Harvard is a stressful place, and we all hope that by dismissing failures and extolling the virtues of future glory we can make our friends’ lives less stressful. But I wonder if we sometimes miss an important moment of growth and development by denying failure. As a senior—while my classmates are continuously (and deservingly) winning fellowships, medical school offers, and jobs at McKinsey and Co—I can’t help but feel that it might be beneficial to sit down and talk seriously about failure.
Many Harvard students have never seriously failed at anything in their life, and many feel understandably uncomfortable talking about disappointment with their own parents. Failure exposes our weakness, brings out our insecurities, and clouds our vision of the future—but it is a permanent fixture of human experience, both inevitable and perhaps invaluable to the real richness of life. By dismissing it, we risk missing its lessons and overlooking its centrality to our own self-improvement. We ought to struggle with failure, to think about what it means for our expectations and our goals. It provides an opportunity to learn a lesson about our own limitations and capabilities sooner, rather than later—at a time when opportunities to begin anew are not so difficult to come by.
This does not mean that we should stop cheering up our friends, nor does it mean that we should avoid contextualizing failure by pointing out how well situated most of us truly are, with the force of the Harvard name on our diploma and the wealth of its resources at our disposal Talking about failure can be difficult; I suspect that such discussions will always be uncomfortable. But the challenge is worth undertaking. Failure today may be the loss of a relationship, the sting of a bad grade, or the inability to find post-collegiate employment, but life often brings more weighty difficulties—infidelity, financial trouble, and death. Learning to talk about these experiences and learn from them is a process worth embarking upon.
Benjamin T. Hand ’12, a social studies concentrator, lives in Currier House.
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January 22, 2012, 5:00 PM
Searching the Brain for the Roots of FearBy JOSEPH LEDOUX
You are taking a walk in the woods ― pleasant, invigorating, the sun shining through the leaves. Suddenly, a rattlesnake appears at your feet. You experience something at that moment. You freeze, your heart rate shoots up and you begin to sweat ― a quick, automatic sequence of physical reactions. That reaction is fear.
A week later, you are taking the same walk again. Sunshine, pleasure, but no rattlesnake. Still, you are worried that you will encounter one. The experience of walking through the woods is fraught with worry. You are anxious.
This simple distinction between anxiety and fear is an important one in the task of defining and treating of anxiety disorders, which affect many millions of people and account for more visits to mental health professionals each year than any of the other broad categories of psychiatric disorders.
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It’s Still the ‘Age of Anxiety.’ Or Is It?By DANIEL SMITH
It’s hard to believe that anyone but scholars of modern literature or paid critics have read W.H. Auden’s dramatic poem “The Age of Anxiety” all the way through, even though it won a Pulitzer Prize in 1948, the year after it was published. It is a difficult work — allusive, allegorical, at times surreal. But more to the point, it’s boring. The characters meet, drink, talk and walk around; then they drink, talk and walk around some more. They do this for 138 pages; then they go home.
The other night I felt overcome by sadness as I reflected upon all the suffering of this world.
In many ways, I have a perfect life. Nevertheless, a part of me will always be sad as long as there is suffering in this world.
Life is bittersweet. And that’s OK with me. Happiness without sadness would not be complete…as long as suffering persists.
I sat with the feelings of sadness, gazing at the dark night sky. I didn’t try to push them away. Quite the contrary, I felt empowered by them.
Usually, we want to move away from sadness as quickly as possible.
We’re encouraged to divert ourselves from the emotion by engaging in physical activity, imagining pleasant and relaxing experiences, or looking for humor in a situation that makes us sad. Some people, who are naturally empathetic, have decided to protect themselves from sadness and other untoward emotions by not watching the news. I can understand why. There’s even a danger of becoming hardened and developing “compassion fatigue” in the face of overwhelming tragedy like the recent disasters in Japan.
But I say, let your heart be broken into a million pieces. You will be all the better for it. Here’s why.
3 WAYS SADNESS CAN EMPOWER YOU
Sadness is not always as bad as it’s made out to be. In fact, sadness can be the start of your journey directly to the heart of true happiness. Here are 3 ways that sadness can help and empower you.
1. Sadness Has the Power to Introduce a Crack in Our Idea of Reality
There is not a single person in this world that can escape from suffering. Suffering is the fundamental characteristic of the way we lead our lives. Failing to see our true nature, our life ends up a constant dance of attachment and aversion. This is precisely what brings unhappiness our way.
“I like this. I don’t like that. I want this. I don’t want that.”
There may be transitory moments of happiness when things go our way, we have an enjoyable sensory experience, or acquire an entrancing new possession. But this happiness is not a long lasting one. All the tension of striving for what we want and rejecting everything else just brings more complications and more suffering. We’re rarely satisfied for more than a moment. Then we’re on to achieving a new goal, having the next experience, getting a better possession, or finding the right relationship.
How about trying this – when sadness pops up, instead of running away, let her wake you up. Sadness has the power to introduce a crack in our limited and limiting version of reality. Maybe life isn’t all about wanting, getting, accomplishing, and possessing. Maybe there is another way.
And even if you know this already, sadness can sing you an even deeper song.
A moment of sadness can be marvelous indeed. You might see clearly for the very first time. Or you might get fantastically woken up once again. Either way, let sadness spark your life with new meaning and purpose.
2. Let Your Heart Break Into a Million Pieces
When sadness breaks open our heart, we become fully human.
By having the courage to touch our own pain and suffering, we can touch and feel the pain and suffering of the entire world. We see: your suffering and my suffering are the same. Suffering is a common thread that unites all of humanity. From recognizing this simple truth, a profound feeling of interconnectedness can arise. This sense of interconnection can bring about an unspeakable joy. It can ignite the wish to bring happiness to all others.
3. Nothing Ever Stays the Same for Even a Moment
Sadness comes when things change – a relationship ends, someone dies, we’re fired from a job, illness descends, a friend is physically hurt, a disaster happens. Sadness introduces us to impermanence and can help us learn to let go.
Change is the only constant in life. Until we learn to accept change gracefully, we’ll always suffer. There’s a blessing in embracing the beauty of impermanence. Through doing so, we will come to value every precious moment of this life and live in a far saner and more fulfilling way.
REFLECTION: LET SADNESS REDOUBLE OUR EFFORTS TO HELP
The quote I’ve chosen for the reflection this week is a favorite of the Dalai Lama’s. It shows us how sadness can redouble our determination to be of service to others.
“For as long as space exists
And sentient beings endure,
May I too remain,
To dispel the misery of the world.”
A HEALTHY APPROACH TO SADNESS
Now, I’m not suggesting that anyone get stuck on sadness – that would be depression. Acknowledging, expressing, and resolving grief leads to greater health and happiness. Repressed grief leads to contraction.
At the same time, we don’t need to push sadness away as soon as it pays a visit. Sadness can be the doorway to profound understanding. I feel empowered by sadness because it helps me see what really matters in life: kindness, love, and compassion.
How do you look at sadness in your life? Has sadness every brought more meaning or happiness into your life?
Dear Harvard Students,
There’s something I wanted to let you know.
You’re doing a great job.
I mean it.
You’re doing an amazing job for getting through a semester of college. You’re doing an amazing job sticking it through. You’re doing an amazing job growing up. You’re doing an amazing job learning about life. You’re doing an amazing job being you.
I feel like we take it for granted that we’re only just coming into our twenties. We’re not really supposed to know what we want to do or who we want to be. And if we do, great! And if we don’t, there’s no such thing as “too late”. Life can bend and flex more than you think it can.
One night before finals, I broke down because I kept asking myself the question why couldn’t I be motivated to study, where did my panic go, what am I doing, where am I going, what happened to my confidence, why am I not excited for this cool class, what do I like, would I prefer hanging out with friends or being by myself…do I even know what I want? I’m not religious, but I still got on my knees in my room, crying, feeling defeated, asking for myself/someone to show me what I truly care about.
I would love to say “I got an answer”. But at the time, I didn’t. I just kept crying, releasing all the anxieties and tension that had built up for a couple weeks. Afterwards, all I knew was that I wasn’t weak, I was human. And we don’t give ourselves enough credit for having to deal with the internal pressure (we may not admit this) of having to be perfect academically, athletically, extracurricularly, socially, and/or physically.
For those who have looked at themselves in the mirror and asked: “What’s wrong with me?” I wanted to let you know: there is nothing wrong with you.
You are human. You aren’t right and you aren’t wrong. Whoever told you college would be perfect, or that you would have to be perfect to be accepted…say hi to that voice and say “There is nothing I should be. I’m trying the best I can.” And you are. That’s why I wanted to let you know you’re doing a great job.
We don’t have to be strong 100% of the time. In fact, feel free to be weak more than half the time. But make sure you’re open to someone about this, even if that someone is yourself. You don’t have to change the way you feel, but acknowledge that you are feeling this way. Because admitting in a nonjudgemental matter that you’re feeling unsure actually means that you aren’t weak. There is nothing wrong with you for not being to handle everything.
I had severe insomnia for a good chunk of 2011, and someone asked me how I finally let myself sleep. I don’t really care much about grades nor do I take on huge responsibilities in my extracurriculars, yet I still felt this unbearable pressure to do, do, do, achieve, achieve, achieve. Finally, I realized by telling myself: There is absolutely nothing you need to achieve by the time you graduate from Harvard, that I could finally just be in bed and drift off to sleep (side note – helps if you kind of let your busy mind wander towards your feet too.)
It’s easy to say “nobody’s perfect”. But it’s hard to really believe it, in your gut. We were born and bred in some fashion to believe that we need to be perfect, to keep improving, to keep striving.
So I just wanted to let you know: You can protest perfect whenever you want.
Merry Christmas Harvard
Love from a fellow student
This entry was written by a member of the Class of 2013 at Harvard College.
Want to Protest Perfect as well? Check out this movement to Protest the Perfectionism
See other blog posts written by other Harvard community members here.
(Reuters) – Facebook launched a new suicide prevention tool on Tuesday, giving users a direct link to an online chat with counselors who can help, the company said.
When students harm themselves the marks often go unseen, but the percentage of undergraduates who have intentionally injured themselves in their lifetimes is stunning.
More than 15 percent of undergraduates nationwide have harmed themselves and 6.8 percent have done so in the past year, according to a study published in the Journal of American College Health in November.
Harvard’s Director of Behavioral Health and Counseling Paul Barreira said Harvard’s rate is slightly lower than the national average, but he declined to offer a more specific figure. Barreira served as a researcher on the study.
These national statistics are reflected in the lives of three Harvard undergraduates.
Interviews with these students, who have harmed themselves during their time at Harvard—two by cutting and another by inflicting non-scarring injuries—reveal that self-harm is a real phenomenon even within the ivory tower. They say that while Harvard offers a number of ways to seek help—whether professional, student-run, or simply social—often the fear of repercussions and an intense concern for privacy leave them to cope alone.
By David Song
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