A few weeks ago, a student at Penn took her life. I didn’t know her, but I felt the damp, uneasy chill that permeated the campus that day and for the rest of the week. I was shaken, but not shocked—between alumni of my high school and stories from Penn, student deaths have become all too common. What disturbed me the most was not the death itself, but the response it generated in the community.
Students were furious. Over the course of the next few days, I heard many variations among the complaints. A few students offered constructive criticism, but the majority of the complaints were vague, simply rants directed at the university for not “doing enough” for mental health issues. There was anger about the university’s handling of the event—a friend who works closely with university administrators on mental health issues later told me that the university had made an honest typographical error in referring to it as an “accident” rather than an “incident in the emails sent out to the student body—and people were offended that it seemed like a cover up.
Though the entire student body also grieved the loss, I was worried about the overall reaction. A peer, a classmate, a friend—felt the need to take her life, and first instinct of the community is to assign blame? Of course, it’s easy—the university is an entity, and it’s easy to assign blame to inhuman things. But more fundamentally, why did we feel the need to project our emotions outward, onto something else? Anger won’t bring her back. Anger is violence in itself, a betrayal of one’s own composure that never results in anything constructive.
This is not how we deal with loss—or at least, it shouldn’t be. Feeling sad is natural—just as natural as eventually moving on from that sadness. It is not remotely as easy to move forward from anger. Karma theory explains that our reactions to situations in our lives bind us into restrictive thought patterns. Our attitudes in the face of adversity, pain, and suffering are what define our resilience and, more than anything, set an example for the community around us. What kind of community are we as students creating if our first reaction to tragedy is not to look within ourselves and to how we can move forward but rather to find fault with others, whether or not the blame is rightly placed? Because even if the university has a poor track record of maintaining student wellness, we as students are the ones best placed to make a change in the community, by getting trained, working to change policies, or even by reaching out to others not as a professional, but as a friend.
When something goes horribly wrong, it’s easy to see what others can do better, but how often do we look within ourselves to see what we can change? On a broader scope, issues facing the world today such as climate change, equal rights, or terrorism cannot be resolved simply by asking other people, groups, or nations to fix their behavior—otherwise those problems would cease to exist. And while the university has a responsibility to do everything in its ability to keep its students safe, we cannot sit around and wait for it to do that. People come to Penn seeking empowerment and the ability to make a difference in the world. But while making a difference is an admirable ideal, we will never change the world if we aren’t willing to change ourselves first.
Reflected by Siddharth Challani | Engineering and College Class of 2019