John Harvard's Journal
New Life Lessons
I love routine. I think a lot of us do. We feel comforted knowing our lives are ordered, regular, and predictable, that we will wake up tomorrow and do what we always do on Tuesdays, what we always do in February, or what we always do at Harvard. But sometimes we need a break if we are to think and grow. Real thinking—thinking about life—differs from hard, intellectual reasoning, but it is no less important. In fact, we may need it more. If we can’t learn from experience and from other people, we have no place trying to learn from books.
In November, I had an adventure that got me thinking about life in new ways. One of my favorite cousins lives with her husband and family just outside Boston. This fall, their first daughter, Lucy, was born at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, just a quick T ride from Cambridge. The day after Lucy was born, a Sunday, I took off after brunch—not for the library, but for Beth Israel.
I was a little nervous—I’d never visited a newborn before, let alone by myself, and I could count on one hand the number of times I’d even set foot in a hospital—but what could go wrong? I thought it would be nice to arrive with a little something, maybe flowers and a stuffed animal for the baby’s big brother, but once in the Square, I found the florist closed and the toy store out of business! I took off toward the T at a run, now empty-handed and late. Of course, the T took longer than expected, too. By the time I finally arrived at the neonatal reception desk, I was tired, harried, and frustrated.
It was magical how, the moment I stepped into my cousin’s hospital room, everything changed. Mother and child were lit only by the soft, milky sun of a late-fall afternoon. Lucy was snoozing, still and peaceful in her bassinet, and Sarah was smiling up at me from mounds of white bedding. The room was spacious, quiet, calm, and soothing. In an instant, my frustration melted away. I looked down at Lucy and felt something in my world click into place. Yes, growing up teaches us that life is not always kind, that people cannot always be trusted, and that history is full of evil and tragedy, but when Sarah said, “Would you like to hold her?” and I scooped up that tiny mass of rose-bud lips, fisted hands, and crinkled eyes, I felt warm, centered, and hopeful. This sweet little baby renewed my confidence in life’s goodness.
On the T ride back to Cambridge, I tried to piece together what I’d just felt and why it had felt so special. I thought about priorities: in day-to-day life, for most people, school or work stands at or near the top. But some events outweigh the daily grind. When a child is born, parents must permanently alter their lives. This process is natural—it feels right. I thought again about how centered I felt when holding Lucy. I realized it always feels right to prioritize human connection over private, individual existence. And, moreover, I discovered that afternoon a model for continued learning. Visiting Sarah and Lucy—people out of my day-to-day life and age-group—taught me a lesson I couldn’t have learned at Harvard. I realized that, if I’m to understand the big picture, I need to pay attention to children and new parents, to the middle-aged and the elderly—to people of all other ages—in addition to my books and peers.
A residential school like Harvard can seem like a closed world for the 18- to 23-year-old set. Most other communities include people of all ages. But at school we’re in our own world of young adults. And not just any old young adults: almost everyone is at the same point in life—between high school and that first full-time job, unmarried and childless. Despite the diversity of this community, we are still living in a world of “likes,” and we cannot possibly be learning about life’s full spectrum.
From what I know of other colleges, many are indeed exclusively the province of young adults. Except for professors, students interact only with people their age—they live in apartments off campus or on campus with student resident advisers. We are lucky at Harvard, though, to have older proctors, tutors, and House masters living among us. Recently I shared my thoughts about the importance of learning from people of all ages with a Yale graduate. He told me it had been essential to his college years that he had spent time with and learned from his resident dean and her family. I know many Harvard students have built and are building similarly fruitful relationships.
Wherever they are—at school, among neighbors, or with family—these relationships with nonpeers can be true anchors. They keep us in touch with the full sweep of humanity; they yank us out of ourselves and out of the present. They remind us to look up from, and beyond, our classes and academic obligations. And they teach us that life isn’t just about the ups and downs of the daily college routine. I find that each time I visit with and listen to older and younger friends, I gain a nugget of wisdom. As I gather these pieces, I fit them into a giant puzzle of understanding. Maybe I’ll never complete the project, but with each new experience, the picture grows clearer.
Over Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks, I paid attention to what I learned from family and friends during travels all around New York, Boston, and New England. Both sides of my family are extensive and close—I know many of my parents’ cousins and their families well—so it was not unusual that we did so much visiting.
And boy, did I learn. Sarah and Lucy taught me about the pure, natural joy of the birth of a child. Several pairs of great-aunts and -uncles taught me about long-lasting, joyful, fruitful marriage. Visiting my grandfather in his new apartment at an Alzheimer’s care facility forced me to confront the inescapable loneliness of sickness and old age, but it also taught me that love and loyalty—which his friends, children, and grandchildren indefatigably exude—make tragedy manageable. That same afternoon, playing Santa’s elf at a Christmas party among gleeful children reminded me of the power of small joys. Their zeal spread like a contagion: it renewed my morale, and, in juxtaposition with my upsetting afternoon, helped me accept the natural yin and yang of human experience. Of course we all know that life goes up and down, but sometimes you need to see it yourself to believe it.
I hope that all college students touched base with and learned from family and friends over break. As rich as it is, our narrow undergraduate experience does not fully prepare us for the vicissitudes of life at large. What prepares us is getting off campus, out of ourselves, and into the world. We need to observe, think about, and participate in lives of those younger, older, and different from ourselves. Only then can we take our book learning and apply it to the wider lives we hope to lead.