This past week, the Council selected several winners for the annual Summer Reading Contest. Three winners, one first-place and two runner-ups, were chosen from over 50 applicants. The contest required each applicant to submit an essay based upon the First Year Experience book, Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward, which was chosen by the University. Each first-year student receives a copy of this book and is encouraged to read and reflect on its messages before arriving to campus. Congratulations to Carsten Pran, this year's contest winner, and to Mindy Wu and Erica Langan, both of whom won the distinction of runner-up. Here are the winning essays:
Carsten Pran - Winner
Acknowledging our roots as an intrinsically collaborative species, I wonder if it is entirely unrealistic to imagine a society in which individuals give and receive assistance readily, regardless of personal identity. When I reflect on society’s current status though, I realize we are moving in quite the opposite direction. It appears that though our web of diverse, global communities becomes increasingly connected every year, our personal regard for others diminishes in tandem.
Perhaps we owe our shrinking spheres of regard to our self-imposed social barriers. Whether intentionally or instinctively, we tend to clump into subdivided masses in high-diversity settings, uniting along contours like race, religion, and political affiliation. These days we form such ‘tribes’ not to seek security from nonhuman dangers as our ancestors would, but rather to pursue a degree of protection from others with conflicting beliefs. While I still uphold the value of social identities, I also find that when we only readily assist those with whom we share nuclear commonalities, we not only rob ourselves of a more substantial support network, but we also deprive society of crucial synergy.
The dysfunctional community in Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing illustrates the consequences of such division. Rigid social barriers mar the story’s segregated Mississippi town, confining the novel’s black central family into self-sufficiency; the only refuge from surrounding racism and injustices. Under these conditions, the family members must depend entirely on each other, or otherwise simply themselves, for survival. On one hand, drug-addicted Leonie abandons her duties as a mother in an unbridled pursuit of her personal vices. On the other, patriarch Pop and young Jojo work tirelessly for terminally-ill Mam and toddling Kayla, oftentimes neglecting their own wellbeing in the process. This dichotomy between self-care and care for others reveals how divided communities hinder our ability to receive and reciprocate support effectively.
If the end goal is a reliable and extensive network in which our egoistic and altruistic interests exist in harmony, we must first destroy the prejudices which hinder us from doing so in the first place. Take the character Leonie for instance. Based on her preliminary description, it is easy for us to despise Leonie, blame her for her selfishness, and mark her as a helpless addict. However, when Ward forces us into Leonie’s perspective through shifting narration tactics, we develop a more compassionate understanding of the mother’s internal conflicts, thus allowing us, at the very least, to humanize her. Applied more generally, individuals can initiate reciprocal kindness with others simply by shedding their prejudices, understanding the social pressures others confront, and offering assistance with any act, no matter how small.
That being said, the road to balanced communion runs two ways. We cannot allow ourselves to utterly surrender to the whim of those who depend on us, lest we completely sacrifice our own personhood and well-being as Jojo and Pop had. In this sense, the mantra “Please remember to put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others.” holds true beyond the airplane seat.
Oftentimes, we find ourselves inundated with stress, stumbling with the cumbersome load of responsibility which makes it especially difficult to find time for ourselves, much less time for others. For this reason, as important as breaking down interpersonal barriers and offering a hand to others is, our ability to ask for and accept help is equally crucial.
During our time at Duke, amidst unparalleled diversity and competition, many of us may gravitate towards our social comfort zones and work exhaustedly to exude an aura of ‘effortless perfection’. These decisions will, in turn, endanger our ability to form necessary support networks from which we can derive and contribute mutual care. In the stressful times that will inevitably come, each one of us can benefit from an environment that encourages us to move forward and does not abandon us in the interest of competition. Though society at large may take more time to mend, if we individually work to promote a common understanding and free ourselves from the stigma of reaching out for help, I believe we can all create a campus in which altruism and self-care exist concurrently.
Mindy Wu - Runner-up
Sharing is Caring
This past spring, the ponderings of mental health filled the corners of my mind. A long-distance friend had revealed her struggles to me, an older peer frequently posted public awareness videos to her amassed online audience, and my high school held its first ever Day of Empathy. Designed simply as an opportunity to listen and speak out about tougher experiences, especially mental health-related, the day set an striking tone, not of gloom but of emotional strength in unity. And this day, more than any others in my senior spring, began to provide me answers. For the first time, my internal confusion and helplessness about how to be a good
friend, how to both cope and support, became a little clearer.
On this Day of Empathy, a close school friend came to me. She enclosed that her own friend, a mutual classmate with whom I also conversed occasionally, had been struggling with depression for the past few years, much more so this senior year. Alone in our school computer lab, I listened to my friend express her anticipated concern. But then, she said something unexpected: “I know this is tough for her, and I feel bad, but I can also feel this taking a toll on my own mental health.” In that moment, my friend took the courageous steps to recognize her own mental health as a priority. Self-care isn’t selfish. it’s the maturity of understanding your limits, knowing that you can’t help others before you help yourself. I used to stay up night after night this past winter, texting my long-distance friend through her mental illness as she couldn’t sleep. With my phone dimmed under my blanket, I forced my eyelids open, reminding myself that my sleep would never be worth more than her life. And when I started noticing how tired I was driving to school, I began realizing I’d been supporting her in the wrong way. I needed to help her understand I wasn’t her only resource, and in that computer lab, my school friend gave me my final wakeup call; she had the bravery to admit her shortcomings, and I had not. Now, my turn came. I cared for my school friend, but more importantly, I was in a position in my life where I had aid to give. Where one individual falls short, others can always step up as well. As the age-old adage goes, sharing is caring, but I take this to mean more than simply distributing physical materials. Pain itself can be alleviated through sharing. My long-distance friend has all of her closer friends and family, my mutual classmate has an entire system of friends in our town, my older peer poses as a role model to so many readers she has never even met. Though we sometimes have to make an effort to discover it, support is all around us.
After finishing Sing, Unburied, Sing, I sketched a diagram of characters and their relationships in an attempt to connect each persona to his/her respective guiding figure, but after scrawls of looping red arrows, my pen failed to produce a neat line of flow. Instead, an ebbing, pulsing web reflected back at me. Jojo looked to both Kayla and Pop, Leonie found solace in Michael and Misty, and she even found comfort in her brother’s ghost. A support system is exactly that—a fluid system of delegation. We give what we can, simultaneously understanding that no one has only a single individual to depend on. We are never the sole savior for another human being, only a piece of a much larger network of love. It is everywhere, around us, within us, and sometimes, showing care is just upholding the responsibility of letting others know the network exists.
Erica Langan- Runner-up
"Treat others how you want to be treated." This is the golden rule. It's a maxim diligently impressed upon our young brains by well-intentioned elementary-school teachers around the world. This genius rule taps into our innate desire to be treated fairly and kindly, then initiates a paradigm shift so that, in theory, we’ll look at Susie who wants to join our hopscotch game or Harry who wants to borrow our gluestick, and we’ll see ourselves. And we'd want Susie and Harry to be nice to us, so we're nice to Susie and Harry. Simple as that. And the domain of this golden rule extends far beyond second-grade classrooms--iterations of it arise in the texts and teachings of nearly every major religion, from the Christian Gospel of Matthew to the Hindu Mahabharata.
But now I'd like to introduce a variation--call it the silver rule, or whatever name ascribes it sufficient metallic luster and prestige. It goes as follows: "Treat yourself how you'd want others to treat you." This rule isn’t as crucial in elementary school, but as we grow older, many of us grow accustomed to putting others before ourselves. We take on responsibilities--as siblings, parents, friends, counselors--and concurrently lose sight of our responsibilities to ourselves. And the more we give of ourselves, the less room we give ourselves for error, the less tolerance we have for our own imperfections. The average person wouldn't enjoy being called ugly, fat, awkward, or uninteresting. The average person wouldn't enjoy being neglected or shamed or insulted. And yet, we say and do these things to ourselves--and at an alarming rate. This is where self-care becomes paramount, where self-respect is critical. The sooner we learn to appraise ourselves at equal value to our peers, the better off we’ll be.
So, how does my twist on the golden rule tie into care for others? I believe the key to maintaining a healthy balance between self-care and care for others is realizing that it’s only through self-care that we can put ourselves into a position to effectively and responsibly care for others.
Consider a doctor. They’re often lauded for the sacrifices they make to serve others, but doctors are human, and all humans have their limits. A world-renowned transplant surgeon who works through the night on back-to-back operations must be humble enough to recognize her limits, to realize when she’s too physically and/or mentally drained to begin another scheduled procedure in the morning. She must recognize when her current state puts her in danger of doing more harm than good.
This same logic holds in daily life, even if there appear to be no lives at stake, and is evident in the failings of Leonie as a parent in Sing, Unburied, Sing. Struggling with drug addiction, racked with longing for her incarcerated husband and simultaneously aggrieved by her estrangement from his family, and haunted by the ghost of her brother, Given, it should be unsurprising that Leonie is unable to fulfill the duties of a mother. And every time she tries, her intentions shrivel up like a plucked medicinal plant in the Mississippi summer, or explode like an oil tanker in the Gulf of Mexico. Her halfhearted, graceless gestures of nurturing and caring are ill-received by the children who have long-ceased calling her "Mama," and their justifiable rejection only sinks Leonie further into her guilt and self-loathing, causing her to lash out at them and resort to more self-destructive behavior. The difficult truth is that, until Leonie can come to terms with her loss, until she can heal all the bruises of disappointment and fear and shame, she won't be able to help anyone. And, especially with Jojo and Kayla, she runs the risk of doing more harm than good.
When so many around us are in need, we may feel guilty for indulging in self-care, for seemingly putting ourselves above others. But we must realize that self-care is not selfish. In fact, it’s self-care that enables us to be the compassionate, generous, impactful people we want to be for others. It’s only logical that before we can help others find their balance, we must ensure we're standing on solid ground ourselves.