Last week, Zachary Brunt ’15, a kind, gifted and beloved student, died much too soon. At Thursday’s vigil, Zach’s father had a single request: “Please don’t let this happen again.”
His request reminds us to think about the many people at Yale who are struggling now or will be in the future. Yale is a wonderful place, but it can be frustrating and isolating. Yalies tend to talk freely about achievement but remain silent about hardship. In this stoic culture, people easily slip through the cracks. We notice when it becomes a tragedy of the magnitude of last week’s, but there are people all over Yale who need some support, compassion and relief.
You can’t provide this support only in the toughest moments. It’s when people are in trouble that they are least likely to feel comfortable speaking up. Openness, encouragement and understanding need to be cultivated long before hardship hits.
During my most difficult semester, I dealt with a type of obsessive-compulsive disorder that nobody around me knew existed. As scary as that was, I was privileged to have a few friends who possessed an extraordinary quality: They were comfortable being around pain without needing to resolve it. They weren’t looking to fix their friends’ problems, to move quickly past the difficulties to immediate positivity. They were just there, for as long as I needed them, without expecting change. Their simple presence was the best gift they had to offer, and they offered it freely.
These people were also extraordinary because of their ability to be vulnerable. This is where true support starts. By being open about your own difficulties, you’ll create an environment where your friends aren’t scared to talk about theirs. As it stands, Yalies’ tendency to downplay hardship fuels a cycle of dishonesty in which people refrain from talking about what’s really going on in their lives for fear of judgment.
But if we don’t talk about prevalent insecurities, how will people ever feel safe enough to discuss deeper issues? Who will they turn to when those problems grow, when they start getting depressed or when their anxiety becomes overwhelming? And if they can’t speak when an issue begins, why will they suddenly feel liberated once it starts to get out of hand?
This is a difficult cycle to end. Change will require both comfort with vulnerability and willingness to be nonjudgmental. Both depend on compassion and kindness — towards others and yourself. Until you learn to give yourself a break, it’s hard to truly put yourself out there, and it’s hard to be there for others when they need you.
Remember that building real compassion means acquiring an ability to separate people’s worth from their grades, work habits and standing in extracurricular organizations. People matter — you matter — at a more basic level. In the pursuit of perfection, it’s easy to forget what real worth looks like. And it becomes difficult to relinquish judgment in favor of understanding and humility.
One of the other unfortunate consequences of a perfectionist culture is that people in trouble often try to mask the extent of their suffering or think they somehow deserve it. But for those who are struggling, it is real, it is hard and you don’t deserve it. Period.
It can be difficult to let people into your life when you’re feeling so off, but take it one step at a time. Begin with even a single line: “I’m struggling right now, but I’m not ready to talk about it.” Gradually reach out to friends and family. Make an appointment with a therapist. No matter what the extent of your difficulties, if you’re unhappy, get the help you deserve.
I didn’t know Zach, but by all accounts he was the type of person who took care of the people in his life. Honor his memory by doing the same for the people in yours. Be kind to yourself and others. Ease up on judgments. Talk about your faults and fears once in a while. Do whatever you can to make the people around you feel at ease.
Start small. Create the type of culture in your own life that you want to see across this campus. But start immediately. People close to you might need you more than they’re able to admit right now.
Kate McDermott is a 2011 graduate of Calhoun College.