Columns

Margaret Hu: Embracing discomfort

By
Guest Columnist
Friday, May 25, 2018
This article is part of the series Commencement Magazine 2018

Like many first-year students, I arrived at Brown with bright eyes, elated to begin college at what I considered the perfect school. This was my chance to live the dream: the American dream my parents had worked so hard to realize, immigrating to the United States so their children could have a better education; the collegiate dream of getting accepted to an Ivy League school; my own teenage dreams of learning and living with like-minded, enthusiastic and interesting people. I lived in paradise. I was so lucky, and I had to be grateful for everything. This was the story I kept telling myself during my early years at Brown.

I thought I loved Brown. I threw myself into every opportunity — classes, socializing, sports, research, acting, editing. But something was off. I kept learning hard truths that I couldn’t reconcile with my idyllic love of Brown. It occurred to me that what I loved was not Brown itself, but the idea of Brown as a perfect, safe haven of a school with students ranked as the happiest in the country. As I spent more years here, Brown demanded that I confront uncomfortable truths about what I held dear. 

This is the America of my parents’ dreams, where every child has an equal chance at going to school and living a good life; but I learned that it is also a place that has exploited my ancestors’ homeland and carries out systemic violence on a regular basis. This is the Brown of my dreams, where I have a world of disciplines at my fingertips and fellow students who support one another; but I learned that it is also a place susceptible to discrimination and silencing student voices — a place where people have hurt me in ways that will scar forever. The self of my dreams is caring, empathetic, responsible and proactive; but I learned I also can be someone who makes mistakes, who lashes out at people out of frustration and who doesn’t always come forward to apologize. 

Over time, I saw myself as flawed, I saw Brown as flawed, I saw America as flawed, and it made me hurt. And while I know it is unrealistic to expect things to be perfect or unproblematic, it was the fact that my previous optimism felt so foolish that put me at a loss. I saw a concrete shift in the way I approached the unknown. My outlook switched from one of excitement to wariness; from automatically seeing the good in others to always looking for the caveats, knowing that flaws must exist. Did that make me a cynic? Is optimism always marked by naiveté?

I study cognitive neuroscience, so I know that as humans we dislike ambiguity and uncertainty — it’s uncomfortable. We are instinctually wired to sort things into simple positive or negative categories. We are much worse at confronting entities that encompass aspects of both: seeing people, places and communities with all of the complexity and contradiction with which they naturally exist. It is why relationships can become more difficult the more intimately we get to know ourselves, friends, partners and homes. Proximity forces faults to be placed squarely in view, yet that very intimacy makes you prone to turning a blind eye. It is hard to accept that what you hold dear may hurt you or others. It means questioning whether your love, derived from the picturesque veneer that originally enchanted you, is strong enough to confront painful nuances. 

The full weight of this realization can be devastating. You feel betrayed. You feel guilty for not realizing sooner the terrible, systemic injustices that govern the world. And it can be hard not to simply let yourself spiral into disdain or apathy.

But if there’s anything Brown has taught me, it is that we should not shy away from this discomfort. Our moral outrage at the disparity between the world as it is and the world as it ought to be should not be dismissed, as it indicates our commitment to personal values and justice. We must give ourselves the space to process those feelings of discomfort. Yet anger cannot be our sole motivator. If we allow it to be the primary fuel for our efforts, we will inevitably burn out. 

However, subduing this rage leaves a void. Without it, what can motivate us to commit to the long, hard work necessary to pursue justice, to fight the good fight? I find that motivation in the belief that each small struggle towards justice means fewer people will experience the pain that we know. We must continue to hold onto hope while also remaining critical — to not get caught up in solely proving all the ways that the world is bad, but to use that knowledge to propose new solutions, help each other heal and make the world we envisioned become a reality. We have all experienced a Brown education. We have all been awakened to the flawed reality. We must now become empowered agents that may bring about positive change.

What makes me believe that we can do this? I believe because I know that I am not alone. I believe because I can contribute to a legacy of powerful solidarities formed between Brown students, who showed up at protests, in statehouses, at meetings and on the streets. I believe because I witnessed the difficult conversations that are negotiated in dorm hallways, on social media and in print. I believe because I learned from my peers the value in each voice and the importance in listening. I believe because I have felt the power in exposing vulnerabilities and the tenacity with which we support each other, no matter how we do so. I believe because I know that many of the unique and cherished parts of Brown only exist because of students’ efforts. 

I still love Brown, no longer as the flawless ideal I saw before, but as a place where students had the imagination to conceive of something better and the grit to make it so. This is what we should celebrate.