Walsh: Remembering to live well

“He took the test for about 45 minutes … then, right in the middle, he jumps out of his seat, dramatically rips up his test and said, ‘I can’t take it anymore!’”

The freshman year prank of Cameron Dabaghi ’11 was recounted last week in the News, a few days after his death. Two years after his wry display during the Directed Studies exam he was pretending to take, we are dealing with the overwhelmingly tragic repercussions of Dabaghi’s suicide. One of Cameron’s classmates, also quoted in this publication, hoped that, “the Yale community will … refrain from thinking of Dabaghi’s death as some kind of lesson, which would diminish the student’s life.” I respectfully disagree. Instead, I believe that a critical conversation should blossom from devastating events like this one.

Universities tend to respond to student suicide in two ways. First, schools host vigils to honor the loss and provide the community an outlet to share support and grief. Second, university health services and chaplains’ offices are raised to the fore of dialogue; their availability is reiterated, forces strengthened and shortcomings examined. This is what happened at Yale earlier this month: Students gathered for a vigil and a memorial service, deans and masters reminded students that their doors, and the doors of Yale University Health Services, are always open. But while critical for the grieving process, these steps address the symptoms of a deeper issue, and not the issue itself: the growing tension between educational pressures and quality of life.

My undergraduate years were defined by the University of Chicago’s unofficial motto: Where fun goes to die. Matriculation to Yale has illuminated an undergraduate experience equally, if not more, predicated on overwork and intensely competitive extracurricular activities. Almost every undergraduate student I have spoken with describes Elis as a group of overachievers.

This statement echoes a 2006 New York Times article focused on a new crop of students and their struggles with the application process: “Essays are just part of the problem, [parents] say. Time-consuming interviews, observed play sessions, rising tuition costs and application fees, preferences shown to siblings and families who have connections to the school, and the increasing difficulty of gaining admission for twins and triplets, parents say, are making the process more stressful for the entire family.” The article, “In Baby Boomlet, Preschool Derby Is the Fiercest Yet,” focuses on children between the ages of two and five whose parents are elbowing to give their toddlers a competitive edge.

The term preschool derby is a strangely apt metaphor for a culture bent on ever-fiercer competition. And though obviously delivered in jest, Dabaghi’s cry of “I can’t take it anymore!” serves as poignant response to this derby.

To continue honoring Cameron — when the vigils have ended, and as we each move, with counseling and community support, through our periods of mourning — we should openly discuss the inherent struggle to both succeed and stay healthy in such a competitive environment. Is this liberal arts community, so deep in the contemplation and study of what it means to live well, able to practice what it learns? How can quality of life be more openly manifested through the mission of the University?

A variety of wellness indicators suggest that self-reported happiness in the U.S. flat-lined in the mid-1950s; some even suggest a decline since then. Numerous theories have since arisen to explain this trend, one rather controversially focused on the erroneous economic conflation of growth and progress. A push for new economics may be definitive to our generation. Organizations like the New Economics Foundation, Demos and Redefining Progress are already taking strong stances in the debate, and Yale, within its own community, and within the City of New Haven, should assume a role of active engagement.

I am not suggesting that YUHS launch a crusade against the gross domestic product. Nor am I trying to connect intense social pressures with the tragedy of Dabaghi’s suicide. (I agree with Berkeley College Dean Kevin Hicks, who implored we “lay aside any temptation to speculate about why Dabaghi took his own life.”) I am simply saying that a larger conversation is now taking place around what it means to live well. Our recent loss exposes both the essential value of the people around us, and the evanescence of what we consider urgent priorities each day. This is rare insight, and even rarer collective insight. Let’s seek placement for such insight as we work to resume not just normal lives, but better lives.

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