When I was growing up, all I wanted was to be a superhero. Whenever I went on a car ride, I would turn up the music and launch myself into elaborate fantasies; for twenty minutes, at least, I could fly around in a tight, elegant unitard, beating up all the bad guys.
The fantasy didn’t end with the music. I started to believe that maybe I actually could be a superhero — and so, two years ago, I came to Yale to learn how to save the world.
Yale, it turns out, is actually a perfect school for superheroes. We learn how to forge iron (but highly professional) masks, how to brandish facts like weapons or conjure drivel like magic. Everyone becomes that kid in TD or Berkeley or insert-college-here, that kid from section — recognized but unknown. Yes, we make a pretty comic book. Love the world, love humanity and bust out the spandex at Safety Dance.
But superheroes aren’t supposed to cry.
Freshman year, I cried in my room — quietly, of course, so my roommate couldn’t hear. For all my love of humanity, I wasn’t sure I could ever fall in love myself. One of my good friends had a disgustingly perfect long-distance relationship, and I simply couldn’t imagine the logistics. How did something like that happen? It must be either magic or fake. Beyond my powers, for sure. So, one day, I flopped down on his bunk bed and asked him the question that fills libraries and pays philosophers.
“What is love?”
After a few minutes of thought, he responded. “Love,” he said, “is looking at the person next to you and realizing that they are a whole person.”
That summer, I travelled to Cape Town and discovered what he meant. For my work, I went to the townships and interviewed single mothers and their families; I spoke to daughters who had pulled their mother out of an abusive relationship, a young man who aspired to be a DJ, a woman who had burned down her boyfriend’s house.
During the interviews, all of my personal thoughts and emotions melted away. As long as the red “RECORD” light glowed, the person talking seemed more real than I did. I became the extra in the ongoing movie of their lives, just some student in a half-written script. When I returned to Yale, I couldn’t stop imagining them, those people with their mysterious joys, fears and loves. And then I understood.
In the end, it’s easy to be a superhero. It’s easy to write a paper or wear a mask — to travel around the world, save the citizens and leave before they can hurt you. For me, it was easy to interview people thousands of miles and a culture away from home. It’s much harder, I discovered, to imagine the full stories and lives of the people who surround me every day — to realize that an annoying classmate goes home, falls asleep and dreams. It’s hard to love someone distasteful. It’s even hard, on bad day, to look beyond personal anxiety and see any whole people at all. It’s strange that the most superhuman task ends up being the most human.
Sometimes, I think that it would be impossible to love everyone. Stupid, even. After all, there are times when we need to get something done, times when an argument really matters.
But why not try? If you dare, stop reading and look at someone sitting near you. If you dare, imagine their childhood, their fears, their dreams. If you dare, actually ask them. Try, for a moment, to see a whole person. Maybe we can’t save the world — but, bit by bit, person by person, maybe we can make a place with more love and fewer masks.
Maggie Yellen is a junior in Timothy Dwight College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.