Harris: What context are we creating here?

On Monday I read names in front of Sterling Memorial on Holocaust Memorial Day. A friend and I sat together on a folding chair, alternatively evoking lives through name, birth date and place, and death date and place, and at times pausing to discuss thoughts the ceremony brought to us.

It is not that they died in the Holocaust — it is that they lived it, I realized.

They lived the death, Mimi pointed out. And they lived it because others were carrying out their ideologies, their visions for an ideal world.

I had to think about this, shocked. The Nazis thought they were working toward a better world. How could this be? Their vision of a better world could not have been one of death for themselves, but one of life, a future Utopia for Aryans, where they did not have to be surrounded by constant war and death.

One fundamental problem in their vision, I decided, was their idea of self — the idea that different kinds of people had no connection to them, and that by hurting others they were not hurting themselves at all. The world is more interconnected than this. The Nazis themselves suffered because of what they did. This is one of Micah Fredman’s points, I thought, and decided to reread his column in Monday’s News (“Marijuana and memorial,” April 20).

I did not come across this piece at first; instead I read Sam Bagg’s “Learn humility at Yale.” His ideas were surprisingly resonant with Fredman’s and speak to how the Nazis could do what they did. Both pieces, in different words, explain that experience is relative, that everyone grows up in different circumstances, and both opine that it is important to understand this relativity and yet still fight for what you believe in while maintaining humility.

Coincidentally — or not — the other staff column published with Bagg’s, Justin Kosslyn’s “The world beautiful,” delves deeper into this idea of context, discussing how the context that surrounds us, the ideas that surround us, influence our lives extensively. He concludes that, as Yalies, we have the power to shape the greater context of the world.

These columns and their connection have become part of my context. They inspired me to write, and I want to thank these authors for choosing to publicly share their beliefs. They have made me consider something more deeply: Do we fully understand this meaning of context? Do we not every day fall prey to the same mentality that led to the Holocaust?

Let me elaborate. I think, because I believe in humans, that many people who contributed to Nazism probably justified their actions with the idea that something better would come, that a future could be achieved through a present that looked nothing like it. That peace might come from war. Maybe they thought that their individual actions, their conformity would not matter so much in the long run. That their decisions really affected no one but themselves.

Yet they forgot that the context of our lives is not simply the economic system, the political system, the physical and natural environments, our institutions or the ideas surrounding us. It is every single one of us. When we act, we do not only act for ourselves, but also set examples for what it means to be a human. The future is only being constituted in every single action that we take in the present. We are setting the examples, creating the context in which other people learn how to live.

So, as Bagg and Kosslyn did, I look at the present, at Yale, to see what context we are creating, what future we are building, as I write. Every day here I come across people who have barely slept the night before. Probably, in every college someone is currently talking about how stressed out she is, someone is about to have a panic attack, someone is taking drugs to work harder, someone is living in the library, someone is doubting her abilities, someone feels not good enough, someone feels she has no time to do anything she loves, someone feels desperately alone, someone is wondering whether this is really worth it. I have been, and will be again, all of these people.

And yet I recognize that this is the world we build by the second. This is the only future there is. We talk of building ideal worlds, but is an ideal world one where we daily destroy ourselves in such a way? What example are we setting for what it means to be human, for what it means to live well? There is a lot wrong with our own present, a lot we let pass. As I look around and as people look to me, they learn it is okay to harm oneself, it is okay to not include your own peace in the vision for a better world. Ironically we can justify our actions by saying they are just our own, we are not harming anyone but ourselves. Yet I believe this idea of individualism to be wrong.

The tragedies of the Holocaust could teach us the consequences of such a narrow version of self. They could teach us that the only future that will come is the one we are acting out. We are setting the context for others’ lives, and they in turn will set the context for our own future lives.

Yet in many ways I, and others, adhere to the same questionable principle as the Nazis that a better future can come from a destructive present. Maybe it’s not okay to just let things we know to be wrong around us happen. It’s always hardest to speak up to those you know, and easiest to believe we can save the world out there tomorrow. How can we go about making the world we live in right now, and know so well, more ideal?

Rachel Harris is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College.

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