When Harvard Breaks You
“You see, broken-heartedness is not a physical condition; it’s a condition of spiritual exhaustion.”—Martin Luther King Jr., Guidelines for a Constructive Church (1966)
I sit in the dining hall. Or it may be my bedroom, a classroom, The Crimson. I am either crying or I am not. That is not the important part of this story.
I have just spoken to a mental health counselor for the first time. I have not submitted assignments. I have missed deadlines. I do not have summer plans. I am a third-year student.
Harvard has broken me.
When I talk about my brokenness, I speak to a feeling that is not completely tangible and that eludes words. It’s the feeling we get at rock bottom—a blend of despair, a sense of ineptitude. It is a frequent questioning of what we are doing with our time here and why we are not doing it better. It feels like defeat. It might bring us shame. Brokenness is that feeling we are deadly afraid to share because of how vulnerable it makes us feel.
Though words threaten to fail me, others have written about things that remind me of my brokenness. Sixteen years after she graduated, an alum wrote that “by the spring of my sophomore year, as the PTSD took over my life, my goal became to simply survive Harvard with my soul intact.” Another said that “Harvard knocked the wind out of me” and that “It is easy to slip into a crack here—a dark mahogany crack—and stay there, and not come out.”
My brokenness also makes my time at Harvard often feel like a game of survival, to simply make it to the next break or trip home. I know that dark place well, and I know how difficult it is to grip its edges to pull myself out.
It is difficult to tell this story.
Sometimes, our friends might hear about how broken we feel, about the tears we’ve shed, and the way we’ve considered taking time off. More often, though, we use our brokenness for a greater purpose. We flip it on its head, sometimes to write op-eds with a positive tilt, writing about “Why We Love to Hate Harvard” or “The Upside to Hating Harvard.”
Sometimes, we make a glimmer of our brokenness public to convince an administrator why certain aspects of this institution need to change or why people like us need more support. We might showcase our pain to reassure younger students who come from similar backgrounds that, though it might be difficult, they too can survive this place. We use our brokenness to build sympathy.
Sympathy is a powerful tool. I myself have packaged my pain, writing about how exhausting it can be to be brown at Harvard, about failed promises, about all my hurt. But presenting brokenness as small, nicely-wrapped gifts hides the way it invades so much of our life at Harvard.
It hides the way that Harvard constantly strips us down, especially if we’re brown, queer, female, or find ourselves living on the margins. It hides the fact that so much of our pain and our darkest moments here cannot be boiled down to an assignment-heavy week or a disappointing rejection. We feel broken for days, weeks, months, or years even. For much longer than we like to admit, brokenness is our Harvard experience.
And, paradoxically, trying to pinpoint brokenness as moment rather than a continual process prevents us from healing. There is nothing that says that the pieces of ourselves cannot be welded back together. Harvard has broken me and it has broken too many of my friends. But our fractures are not indefinite—not if we give our brokenness the attention it deserves.
And maybe I am culpable, in this column, of doing exactly what I railed against earlier. Maybe I’ve presented a shard of my brokeness with the hope that that it will coax people into speaking up about how Harvard has broken them. But I can’t help myself: I write this story because my brokenness threatens to swallow me whole tonight.
Though I generally prefer to deal in concrete solutions, all I hold in my hand now are intangibles. Maybe this is a shout into the void. Maybe I write this story about my brokenness with the hope that putting it in print will make it real, something I can hold in my hands, something you will help me cement back together.
This is or is not a column about depression. This is either a column about loneliness, or it is not. This is or is not a column about my pain.
This is a column about my brokenness. That is the important part of this story.
Ruben E. Reyes Jr. ’19, a former Crimson Editorial Chair, is a History & Literature concentrator in Leverett House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.
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