I think it started at Visitas. Seventeen, bright-eyed, and fresh off a plane from Denver, I nervously met my freshman host and his roommates at Matthews Hall in Harvard Yard. As I peppered them with questions about their lives at Harvard (“are your classes really that hard?”) and about what it meant that I had been admitted here (“do I still need to ace my AP exams in May?”), I sensed a certain subtle air of collected assurance about them. “Nah,” they said dismissively. “AP’s don’t really matter. At this point, just don’t fail all your classes and you’ll be fine.” Breathing a sigh of relief, I felt an exuberance well up in me that far surpassed mere alleviation of AP Chemistry anxiety. See, in my heart I was asking another, much bigger question: Am I OK now?
Something about their casual demeanor murmured back to me: Yes, yes you are. You’ve arrived.
Come to think of it, maybe it started a few months before Visitas, at the airport computer kiosk where I checked my email en route to visit another college and found a letter from the Harvard Admissions office beginning “We are delighted to inform you…” It’s sort of a blur at that point, but I believe I performed a kind of violent dance replete with erratic-fist-pumping, then wandered around the terminal in a daze for about ten minutes, called my mom, and almost missed my flight. I suddenly felt that my plans for that trip no longer really mattered. I also phoned a few friends, breathlessly feigning interest in normal conversation for a few seconds before telling them the news with as much nonchalance as I could muster. (This was before I learned not to mention where I go to school unless absolutely pressed, or trying to get something I want–like approval, or a date, or a job).
The “it” I have been referring to is the sense that I am OK, that I am justified, that I am acceptable in my own eyes and in the eyes of others, that my life has meaning, because I go to Harvard. It entails a strong feeling of belonging, of having passed severe scrutiny, of membership in the “in” club, of having credentials. It carries a rich sense of past accomplishment and an eager hope for the future. It inspires pride in my family, praise and admiration (and yes, jealousy) from strangers and friends alike. I have something that everyone has reason to want, that people in faraway countries dream about for their kids.
Whenever it started, it now completely owns and defines me. Indeed, it would not be too much of an exaggeration to say that my enrollment here validates my existence.
I like to deny it, too. I prefer to take it out and play with it briefly when convenient, and then thrust it back out of my consciousness when I notice what I am doing. It is a handy, reliable source of power and confidence that I can draw on when I feel weak or anxious or despondent, and then put it back in my pocket. It makes me feel momentarily stronger and smarter and more in control of my destiny. Kind of like the One Ring in Tolkein’s series.
(This, by the way, is what Christians refer to as an idol. I haven’t used that term because a) it may sound like opaque religious gibberish and b) most people, even Christians, don’t really understand what it means.)
Well now, you say. So what? Isn’t going to Harvard a good thing, something that we should be proud of and grateful for? And aren’t these feelings perfectly natural; wouldn’t anyone in this position have them? What’s the big deal?
First, I venture to speculate that this Harvard-as-Existence-Validation syndrome is almost universal here. Some have more extreme cases than others, and it often lingers in the background, but it’s there.
More importantly, there’s a nasty underbelly, some unpleasant symptoms. I think that like disease symptoms, these are indicators of a more serious condition than first meets the eye.
The first symptom is thinking that this syndrome doesn’t apply to me, or not even asking the question. It’s innocuous, the carbon monoxide of this place. This, I believe, is part of its power: we have a problem of underestimation. Unconsidered denial should be a sign that there’s something amiss here.
Second, when neurotic or despairing, I have caught myself seeking comfort in the fact that I go here. But it cannot provide true comfort or relief. If anything, such self-soothing will prevent the true growth and character change that comes with encountering my own weakness and cosmic frailty. And the more I rely on this to bolster my shaky ego, the more it becomes wedded to who I am as a person, to my identity.
Third, I want to believe that I have earned it. But the reality is that, while I worked hard to get here and continue to work hard, I did not really earn this in any meaningful sense. My parents taught me to read from a young age, hired a Spanish teacher when I was six, and got me into a charter school when the local public schools seemed inadequate. I was given a brain with natural abilities, excellent high school teachers, and the financial resources to pursue various activities in high school. Then I won a lottery to get accepted; plenty of equally-qualified people don’t get in. Yet, I take credit for it in my heart. This in turn fosters self-centered pride.
Fourth, I have started admitting to myself that I feel (mostly subconsciously) that I am better than other people because I go here. This will likely make it harder for me to relate to people as life goes on. Specifically, I will struggle to have empathy for, and to share true community with, the vast majority of the world’s people who have made failures of their lives and/or struggle for basic resources. Ask any Harvard student about the awkward tension of trying to seem like just a ‘normal’ person in conversations with ‘normal’ people.
Finally, it is not permanent: it will ultimately abandon me. In the end Harvard avails me absolutely nothing before the eyes of Him with whom we have to do. And the danger is that before Him I may think that this is what I have to show for myself.