A Reflection On Loss And Community

13 Nov

This is not an article I would ever want to write. It is not an article anyone would want to read. It’s not an article this blog would ever want to publish.

As I’m sure all of us are now aware, our community was hit with an incredible tragedy this week. In two days, we have lost two of our fellow Wildcats. These people were our classmates and our friends. They were a part of a school we all take great pride in, and to put the impact of these events into words would require an ability I do not possess. Perhaps it cannot even be done. But if these words can have a positive impact on a single person within the community that Sherman Ave attempts to speak for and with, then I believe there is a certain obligation to publish them.

My initial thought when I first heard the news, outside of shock and sadness, was complete disbelief. By all accounts, these were two beautiful young people with bright futures and compassionate hearts. The thought that they would want to end their lives is disturbing and painfully sad. We all often want to know why, and when there is no explanation to be found on the surface, we assume there isn’t one to be found anywhere.

Experience has taught me personally, however, that what goes on inside our heads can have more of an impact on our lives than what happens to us from the outside. Our thoughts can turn even the smallest occurrences into agonizing, life-altering events. It is my belief that the human spirit can withstand horrible trials so long as it knows when these trials will end. In the case of mental illness, it is almost impossible to see the light at the end of the tunnel. It is part of life, and it’s a part that can be difficult if not impossible to communicate to those around us.

As a brief, but important, aside, I was recently diagnosed with anxiety disorder and depression. I’m extremely fortunate; my case is mild and treatable. Many of my fellow students, however, are not so lucky. I do not raise this point to shine a light on mental illness; one of my fellow writers has done a masterful job of that already. I bring it up only to reiterate to any reader who may be struggling that you are not alone, and that the problem is not, by any stretch of the imagination, your fault. There are more of your fellow human beings struggling with mental illness than you may think. It is simply oftentimes impossible to know who among us is fighting more demons than they can handle.

I believe our society is beginning to understand more and more the significance of the human brain. From our professional sports to our armed forces, we are seeing that it is incredibly fragile and prone to damage, and that this damage can lead a seemingly ‘great’ life to devolve into a personal hell. Our brain chemistry can color our experiences in ways that are unimaginable from the outside.

With this in mind, I would like to conclude this essay with a few thoughts that have occurred to me many times in the past three years. At Northwestern, we are hopelessly busy people. We cram a semester’s worth of knowledge into a 10-week period populated by two or more sets of midterms. We have a natural inclination to be involved on campus. The post-grad career culture begins to consume us even as freshmen, when we are told that every summer is crucial to attaining a good career and a happy life after college. I believe that it is a particularly overwhelming and difficult environment.

That being the world we all live in, I think we should also be mindful of the incredibly positive impact every one of us can make in the lives of our fellow Wildcats, and even our fellow human beings. We debate the effectiveness of CAPS and mourn when tragedies such as these rock our campus. But I worry that we forget what kind of impact something simple such as an out-of-the-blue text from a friend can have. Or a smile from a stranger on Sheridan. Or even a small compliment. No one can expect all people to manage their own complex lives while also always looking out for everyone they know. But it’s certainly reasonable to assume we have the power to get out of our comfort zones, just a little, to lift each other up in some small way. I don’t know what difference that would have made in these cases, but I do know it can make a difference to someone, and that counts for something.

These actions sound inane, but my belief, supported by my experience, tells me they have an impact. And therefore, I believe we have a certain responsibility to do these things. Life is difficult enough without us as humans making it harder on each other.

-Dan Ryan

3 Responses to “A Reflection On Loss And Community”

  1. Noell November 13, 2013 at 8:58 pm #

    …important, relevant and well said. Prayers and peace…

  2. GBD November 13, 2013 at 11:46 pm #

    Thanks for this. In the past year I’ve had a friend commit suicide, two friends attempt, and been following the news of every Northwestern death. Will these things ever get better? I don’t know but the advice you offer is a way to start.

  3. Anonymous November 14, 2013 at 11:49 am #

    A key part of this equation is the professors, deans, and department heads that are largely inflexible and uncaring. They’re laughably out of touch with the pressures that are on student here. People are here to go to school, and to try to do their best to get a good job. These people didn’t end their lives in a vacuum. They do it in a veritable pressure cooker. Grade distributions are being pulled tighter, less students are being admitted, and the academic experience here can be hellish. To do as well as we think we have to do, we would need to cut out social and extracurricular activities that are essential for mental heath and general wellbeing and life satisfaction. Why does everyone binge drink and hookup and rarely find strong relationships? Because there is no god damn time. It’s an unreasonable balancing act to ask of students. And if you let your grades slip to have more social interaction, your gpa drops–which, as we have been conditioned to know, lowers our job prospects and future outlook. Four years of misery to lead to a good job can seem like an eternity. And you eventually realize that your job will be even worse. The professors and academic admin should, by mandate, make exceptions 100 percent of the time if a student needs an extension or to take a test later due to personal issues. People who get into NU have proven they are smart—why do we subscribe to this hypercompetitive culture once here? Who gains from this? Sure, the university looks better on paper–maybe we move up in the rankings. Until you look through the news and realize that people are routinely killing themselves here, because the experience can be god awful.

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