Middlebury College is an interesting, engaging, and incredibly special place; I feel so fortunate to be a part of it. It is also a place where productivity is sometimes the ultimate goal and individual schedules and stresses take center stage. Empathy often takes the form of commiserating about work and academic pressure, but oftentimes other sources of emotional strain are left unacknowledged. It’s almost like we get into empathy “ruts,” where only certain things are acceptable to share and receive. I think this relates back to global health in the sense that there are always health issues that, whether it be locally or globally, garner a lot of attention and empathy for one reason or another, while there are others that never receive that same empathy and attention (typically because of some stigma they carry). This sounds like a huge and almost insurmountable global health challenge. What could possible cause global empathy tendencies to shift and grow? Well, I think it could start right here on campus. Just like some health topics are stigmatized worldwide, things like eating disorders, mental health, perceived personal short-comings, and doubt can feel like they carry a stigma on this campus. By opening up to people around us we can give and receive meaningful empathy. I believe that at any given moment everyone is fighting some sort of battle and comparing and contrasting does no good; the only way to heal, and to help heal others, whether it be halfway around the world or right down the hall, is to accept their battle as it is, without any alterations or explanations.
As this is our last normal post before the final reflection, I want to share what empathy means to me. When I think of empathy and noticing, I think of the E. E. Cummings poem “[i carry your heart with me(i carry it in].” For me, this poem makes me think of my mom and sister, the people for whom I experience the strongest and most consistent empathy. With everything going on on campus with finals ramping up, and the various shocking and painful crisis in the world recently (and not so recently), I have been thinking a lot about this poem; it helps me remember the positive aspects of human connection.
[i carry your heart with me(i carry it in]
BY E. E. CUMMINGS
i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)
no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you
here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart
i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)
I am from Colorado and was lucky enough to get to travel back home on Wednesday to celebrate Thanksgiving, and then return to Middlebury today (Sunday). Spending time in airports is always a great time for people watching. I am always struck by the fact that what we are all doing is awesome, but we go through it with blank faces. We are flying through the air in a metal tube! So cool! But I rarely think about this in the moment. I am usually busy trying to nap, counting down the minutes until I land, or staring at other peoples’ blank faces. I wonder how something so amazing has become so mundane and almost chore-like? It seems like if strangers should be able to connect over anything it should be over something as unique and exciting as flying, but I haven’t found that to happen very often, or ever.
This week I (and probably everyone on campus) have been bombarded by opinionated, online, post-Paris attacks bursts of information. The main thing that has surprised me is the extremeness of all of it. It all seems to follow a zero-sum mentality. In response, I have been trying to give a little extra attention to the “grey areas” in current events and in day-to-day life.
This is a link to an article about a new start-up company, Joyable, that “wants to end social anxiety.” Joyable uses cognitive behavioral therapy to help its clients overcome social anxiety via an accessible website and 1:1 “coaching.” This article caught my eye for a few reasons. First, I think it is super cool that someone has found a way to use the convenience and comfort of technology to address mental health. It also made me wonder how this new business model will effect the treatment and perception of mental health. For example, it is interesting that Joybale intentionally avoids calling their customers patients, will this become the new norm? I think it is great that this company is working to make mental health resources accessible and stigma-free for all, and I am curious to see how it develops.
Yesterday I went to Ross Dining Hall for dinner which was weird because I almost always go to Proctor or Atwater. The most shocking part was that I felt like I hardly recognized any of the faces in there! It made me wonder how many other habits I have that keep me segregated from other students on campus. Middlebury College seems to be pretty self-selective in the sense that you probably have quite a bit in common with any given student just because, for some reason, you both chose to live and study in this place for four years. It was strange to think that perhaps the only reason I haven’t met someone who I could be great friends with is just because we have different dining, living, or studying preferences.
This week was very busy for me work-wise. I noticed that, because of the stress, I took less time to check-in with and talk to friends and people I trust. This is interesting to me because it seems that, in times of stress, empathy and support should become more important, not less. However, I think there is something about the way I handle stress that prompts me to recoil inward and “just get it done.” I wonder if big assignments and busy weeks would be less or more stressful if I tried to fight the urge to turn inward and, instead, focused empathetically outward. I have a hunch that it would significantly decrease stress and I am curious to try it the next time I have a big exam or something.
This semester I am taking Acting I. The primary reason I signed up for the class was to fulfill my art credit; I did not really expect very much from it. The biggest surprise of the semester is that I am finding it to be a very impactful experience. This week, each person in the class had to prepare a one-minute monologue based on the prompt, “what do you want to say to someone who you have strong emotions for, but can’t.” This idea of voicing some of my most intimate and honest emotions and thoughts in front of a group of people that I barely know caused me quite a bit of anxiety. However, watching every one of my classmates share a small, honest, intimate, and often profound part of themselves was incredibly inspiring, and allowed me to do the same. This experience made me think a lot about the things that people choose to share and to not share. Not every monologue was happy, in fact, some showcased very negative emotions (including my own); it seems to me that these are the emotions and “issues” that usually get bottled up. I could relate to, and empathize with, each classmate, even if I had not personally experienced what they were talking about; furthermore, I deeply appreciated their abilities to share so honestly and openly. This experience has made me think a lot about how to utilize and enhance the skills of empathy, honesty, and thoughtfulness that made this in-class exercise so meaningful in my day-to-day life.
I am often struck by how activities that are entirely normal and standard in the broader context of life, can be unusual or uncomfortable here on campus. The example of this that I run into most often is eating meals alone. This is something that people, including myself, do all the time and don’t even think twice about in “normal” life. However, for some reason, walking into Proctor alone often provokes a lot of anxiety. Sitting down for a solo dining hall meal usually provokes the same thought process every time. First, I tell myself that this is a totally normal thing, no need to worry! Then, the pressure to pull out my phone or computer begins to build. Eventually, I cave, and stare at a screen for no real purpose while I eat. Why does this happen? Is it because I am uncomfortable with people seeing me alone? If this is the case, then why does pulling out the technology help soothe anxiety? Perhaps the root of it is that, in this place of high achievement and stress, I am most afraid of people thinking I am not being “busy” or “productive?”
I always find it interesting to notice when it is and isn’t appropriate to say “hello” or wave to someone you recently met as you walk past. Middlebury College is a small school so I find myself passing these “awkward acquaintances” quite frequently. Some people seem very good at making connections with people they have only just met, whereas I often find it takes me a few introductions to make a connection with someone. I wonder what the root of this is? Does it depend on the person’s social skills or extraversion, the setting, the context in which they first met, or something else entirely?