PARK: Listen

On Black Friday, I learned a friend had died. The following Monday, I learned she had committed suicide. That Thursday, her sorority held a campus-wide candlelight vigil and on Friday, I wrote a letter to be read at the family memorial, which was held this past weekend.

Alyssa Weaver and I were both part of an academic program at Northwestern to study ethics and civic life. We examined Rawls and Bonhoeffer and Nagel together to find answers to questions on our responsibilities as citizens, on moral courage, on what it means to be good. I knew her in context of the most intellectually rewarding experience I had had at the university before transferring to Yale.

Alyssa was the last person I would have thought to be, as her mother told the Daily Northwestern, “in a dark place.” All of my memories had her laughing and smiling, and her exuberant spirit was of the rarest kind, the kind that makes the world a warmer place. She was interested in chemistry and art, and loved books and museums. She had that colorful personality that would make everything she did, whether discussing philosophy or arguing for the impoverished, vibrant and engaging.

I’ve tried to see if I missed anything, any warning signs I should have noticed in order to lend her a helping hand. But Alyssa and I were not close friends; we ran in different circles and lived different lives. Besides, she did not share her suffering with her family, let alone her friends. I wish I had known her better, but I no longer have the opportunity to do so.

A slew of articles, panels and discussions about mental health have engaged Northwestern’s campus in the wake of Alyssa’s death. The director of the ethics program that Alyssa and I were in offered her phone number and office hours to her advisees, even while she herself grieved. I hesitated — should I call? I put the phone back down as I decided that I would be all right. That was when I began to understand our aversion to seeking help. Seeking help can seem like a sign of weakness. Seeking help may not seem worthwhile. Seeking help requires admitting you need it.

But I think the most profound deterrent to seeking help is the thought of being alone. Who can truly understand what you are going through? Especially at elite universities like Yale and Northwestern, where most of our peers seem effortlessly superhuman and well-adjusted, we rarely see the private demons that each of us may hide. An English teacher once told me that everyone puts on a different persona for different people, but we mustn’t be afraid to reveal more of our real selves to others. It’s risky, sure, but making an honest effort to connect can help lighten our burdens and cement solidarity. Even if reaching out does not bring catharsis, it allows the people around you to catch you before you fall.

I’d imagine, however, that many of us are not in as dark a place as Alyssa was. So we can — we must — be there for those who are. The first writer Alyssa and I read in class was Robert Gibbs, who begins his book “Why Ethics?” by examining the idea of the conversation. One of his more salient points was that there is an asymmetry between the listener and the speaker. Responsibility begins with the act of listening, not with the act of speaking. Each one of us has an immense power, the power to soothe and relieve simply by extending an open ear. The onus is on us, then, to do so, especially in times of stress.

So introduce yourself to someone you recognize from class. Spare a second longer with a friend. It’s a cold, vast universe out there, and we only have each other for warmth.

Jonathan Park is a junior in Ezra Stiles College and a transfer student from Northwestern University. Contact him at jonathan.park@yale.edu.

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