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Tomb of the Unknown Survivor

By Ben A. Roy
Ben A. Roy ’20 is a Classics concentrator in Kirkland House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

There are those who do not survive the events of their lives. When this happens in the service of one’s country, many people consider those people to be heroes. Heroes are meant to be honored, but what can you do when all that remains is the body of the hero, and not their name, nor any clue as to who they were in life besides the wreckage of their corpse? A common grave is given to those known in war as the “unknown soldiers,” and they are honored not for the sacrifice they gave, but for the sacrifice they represent.

There are unknown survivors, too, and not just of war, but of a sadly innumerable array of atrocities. Odds are you know a survivor. I am a survivor. The only honor most of us ever get is the time we still have left to live.

I’d like to share with you some things that I am a survivor of. At the age of 10, I survived multiple sexual assaults. A few years later, I survived the long and messy divorce of my parents. At the beginning of this semester, I found out that I have been living with depression my entire life, so, right now, I am surviving depression (antidepressants are helping me a lot).

Now, you may expect that I will receive an outpouring of praise and warmth for what I have just written, and I welcome it. But my pen should not make me more deserving of love than those of us who cannot bear to tell another soul what they have lived through, their pain is so great. My voice, my courage, my vulnerability should not make me the only recipient you know of the support of the community. No one should have to write what I have written to feel that their life is valid.

I think a survivor is anyone who has been made to confront their own mortality, anyone whose life could have easily been rewritten as a tragedy, anyone who has had to choose to still be alive.

And you are not just a survivor once you’ve survived something traumatic, you are a survivor every single day afterwards, too, and you will always be a survivor so long as you continue to choose to lead your life the way you want to, in spite of all that you have lived through. You are a survivor because wherever you go, you carry the burden of your trauma with you. Sadly, many survivors choose to end their own lives as a way to escape their suffering, and so we do not just survive once, but our survival is a daily feat of willpower.

This column is the last time I will tell you that I am a survivor. You can know that I will always be one, because there are no gradations, there are no levels, there is no hierarchy of pain. Pain is pain is pain is pain is pain. Every strain is equally abominable, ought equally to be our collective enemy, might equally affect any one of us.

Odds are you know a survivor. Do not ask us to tell you what we have survived, or that we are survivors, or to qualify our pain at all. We have no one face, no one gender, no one complexion, no one religion, no one single trait held in common but perhaps the dark and telling look that fills our eyes when we are made to think of the past.

So, if we are to honor the unknown survivors who walk among us, with whom we laugh and chat and interact each and every day of our lives, let us build within each of our hearts a “Tomb of the Unknown Survivor,” so we might have a place to honor every ghost and mind and memory that wanders the earth without sharing its pain.

It is estimated that in all of history over a hundred billion human beings have lived, and most have known pain. Those of us still alive today are not so different, really. And so, as the dead do not need to explain their deaths to elicit our deepest sympathies, so, too, might we show those human beings who still share the world with us today the great depths of our love and compassion, and not ask them to explain to us the death that almost was their life.

Most of what we call our humanity is at odds with the principles of suffering. In fact, I believe we are most human when we alleviate the suffering of others, and that is essentially the foundation of any healthy community. We may differ in the sources of our trauma, but we are all alike in our suffering — like a jewel found deep within the hollow earth, the weight of the world has only served to make us a thing of beauty, brilliance, and of strength.

This is all to say, so long as there are people in your life, treasure them, and share with them the love you might reserve for the victims of the worst atrocities you can imagine. Who knows, you might just be right.

And remember, it’s easy to praise a writer — it’s hard to change your life.

Ben A. Roy ’20 is a Classics concentrator in Kirkland House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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