Reflection: Living histories


Memorial Church from the Third Floor of Greenough Hall

“Do you believe…

That mountains move at the request of an honest heart?
That all the thoughts of your lifetimesurely cannot cease to exist when
your body alone has withered?
That all of the thoughts of your
lifetime have not gone unheard?”
-John Ryan Pike (1983-2007)

My friend, John, never got to write his autobiography. And yet, as his unfinished poem demonstrates, John understood that the ideas, relationships, and events of our lives live on long after we are gone. Indeed, one of the great assets of every human being is that he possesses a personal history as dynamic and fundamentally mysterious as any biography we find on the shelves of the COOP. For John, hundreds of blank pages remain in his personal history, only to be filled in by the future that his loved ones imagine for him. For those of us about to graduate, a chapter of our history is rapidly approaching, the next chapter still as yet unwritten.

Professor Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, 300th Anniversary University Professor of History at Harvard and the Pulitzer Prize winning author of A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, once said that her historical approach is designed to “show the interconnection between public events and private experience.” By focusing on the lives of ordinary citizens, Ulrich elucidates truths that could never have emerged from a telescopic focus on the leaders and luminaries of ages past.

Ulrich’s approach is predicated on the notion that we, the common men of the world, possess captivating historical narratives that are, at once, a product of free choice and an infinite number of external forces. Simply put, there is no monopoly on compelling lives. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s memoir is entitled, A Living History. And while no one will offer any of the graduates of the Class of 2009 an $8 million book-advance…yet…each of us leaves Harvard with a unique and meaningful life story-a living history-and each of us has shared part of our own story with our classmates over the past three years.

Personal histories overlap in a plethora of ways. People often employ the phrase “small world” when they discover a coincidence of intertwined historical paths. This response is unfortunate in its simplicity. It bespeaks of a skepticism that ourselves and our non-celebrity peers are worthy of historical study-when, in truth, a careful historical study of the lives of average men will provide stunning insights into the nature of humanity which make the “coincidence” of our latticed histories far less surprising.It also speaks of a fundamental lack of recognition that we actively construct our own histories alongside billions of contemporaries and that coincidences are not at all random, but instead are quite predictable byproducts of overlaps in individual values, goals, tastes, and characters.

In the loneliest days of my life, I gazed westward from my third-story window in Greenough Hall, a freshman dormitory at Harvard, and watched the steeple of Memorial Church emerge, awash in white light against a darkening sky. That was seven years ago, at the beginning of a new chapter in my life and the 367th year of Harvard College.

At that time, daydreaming, which has been a pastime of mine ever since my mother taught me the joys of letting one’s mind wander during long walks in the Audubon near my hometown of Hamilton, Massachusetts, took on an even more important significance. I stood on a personal precipice-the beginning of a horrifying new chapter of my life that I feared would see the undoing of the story’s protagonist. And yet, like most adolescents, I persevered through trying times on the shoulders of family and friends whose histories I pulled inward for self-preservation.

The gravitational pull exerted by others on the lines of our own histories are constantly shifting. Personal histories, and thus collective history as well, never move in a straight line, or even with predictable irregularities. There are too many interconnected parts of our lives for such a simple solution. Instead, our histories resemble the electron cloud of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle-sprinting incessantly around its core, impossible to pin down at any given moment, keeping the core together and exerting force on it.

Nevertheless, against all odds, it would seem, 550 histories came together to form the HLS Class of 2009. We began far astray from each other in big cities and small towns the world over, have coalesced as one class in this school at this historical moment, and will, just as certainly, spread out once more as this common chapter recedes into the background (think “optional reading”) of our personal histories.

However, the common experience of Harvard is a powerful influence, not only on our individual pocketbooks forevermore, but on the way we understand the world into which we enter. Surely, John told the world, the thoughts of a lifetime cannot cease to exist when your body alone has withered. Just as surely, the influence of this University and the classmates that have shared it with you cannot help but shape our personal histories, long after we depart the Great Library of the modern age.

Farewell, Fair Harvard. Farewell.

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