Tears of the Moon
In high school and the early years of college, I had valued being nice to people. Simple gestures of kindness warmed my heart, and it felt nice to go out of the way and listen to someone when they needed help. I felt like my life was going decently then, and it felt like something good to do to go and cheer someone up.
Somewhere in college, this thinking changed; anxiety, egotism, and isolation made it hard to want to be nice.
I’ve had some problems with anxiety in the past, and in East Campus at MIT, my anxieties caught up to me. East Campus is an old dormitory, which had been in a state of mild disrepair when I lived there in 2010. I had some problems with feeling comfortable inside old buildings, since I was afraid of lead and asbestos poisoning. It was a form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, but at the time I did not realize I was being irrational. I relieved my anxieties by not spending as much time in East Campus once I realized how old the building was. I felt that I would die young or suffer cognitive disorders if I spent too much time in East Campus.
My friends did not have these anxieties, and when I hung out with them I would get very very nervous at some perfectly normal things they did — lean against the wall with chipping paint, or hit a tennis ball against the walls. At the end of that year, I felt I couldn’t breathe inside EC or else I would feel that I would suffer terrible and permanent consequences to my health.
The correct thing to do for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is to face your fears, and to habituate yourself to the sources of your anxiety. The exact wrong thing to do is give into them, because then Obsessive Compulsive Disorder gets worse. Yet that’s exactly what I did. I turned my back on East campus and my group of friends who lived there, and moved to quiet MacGregor out West. I didn’t think it was a bad thing at the time.
It felt hard for me to hang out with my friends, since normal things they did would suddenly make me feel very uncomfortable due to anxieties. I told myself I was better than them as a person, as some sort of perverse relief to make myself feel better about not wanting to hang out with them. I was not willing to be open and change myself, and it didn’t even occur to me that I was being narrow-minded.
It’s not fun going through college without your friends. Moving away fixed my issues temporarily, but I still found I got very anxious in MacGregor. I would go through all sorts of rituals to relieve this anxiety — every time I touched a wall, I would wash off that part of my body. Every time I dropped clothes from laundry on the floor in the laundromat, I would have to launder that article of clothing again. I could not wear the shoes I wore to Environmental Engineering lab back into my dormitory room. I had to walk through the halls in a very particular way to avoid walking on the chipped paint on the floor, and if I missed I had to throw my shoes into the laundry and stay in my dorm until the laundry finished. Every day I had a new anxiety, and a new elaborate way of relieving this anxiety. Every day, I retreated farther and farther into my head.
At around this time, I noticed that I stopped caring about showing my friends kindness, or making a simple gesture to help people feel included.
In high school and the early years of college, when I had seen broken glass on the sidewalk when biking, I would stop to collect some of the shards and throw them away — what if a kid with sandals or a dog walked over them? When my friend flew to Boston on a college visit and desperately wanted me to take her to her ex-boyfriend’s place to talk with him, I shelved my plans for the day and spent the day with her at Harvard seeking out her ex (who happened to be one of my best friends from high school). I got a rush of warmth from picking up books for someone who dropped them walking down the stairs. I took pleasure in making colorful cards for kids in hospitals at the MIT volunteering midway. These things were nice. Simple. Beautiful.
Later on in college, I shelved this desire to be nice to people. During my sophomore year, I felt that being nice was not something that was that important to me, since I got very egotistical and anxious about everything. I later found out, after some bad times in that year, that part of the nice feeling I got from helping someone was polluted with the need to be needed and loved. The neediness really showed during in my sophomore year when things were not going well in life, and I realized a year later how selfish I had been. I was needy and insecure, and getting emotionally close to other people became my way of feeling important myself.
The conclusion was that this old niceness was polluted beyond repair, and that I would do better by just focusing on my work and not trying to go out of my way to be nice.
I noticed that the feel-good feeling of doing a nice thing for someone has faded since I made this choice. I started volunteering more. I cooked food for St. Patrick’s day at a soup kitchen once, with my friends Sonika and Evie. I ran math activities at the YMCA in Dorchester, a minority community in Boston. I organized online math classes for talented students in Ghana. I didn’t feel much warmth when doing this, as I once had, and this disquieted me — it felt more like work. My friendships became less close, and more fun. With one exception, I didn’t talk much about my emotions and feelings to my friends, nor did they share much with me. I concluded this was a good thing; being nice was no longer polluted by my own selfishness and neediness.
Now though, I’m not sure what to think. I’m trying to find that feeling again; the feeling of warmth about being there for a friend in need, or of helping someone out, or even of a small gesture like flashing a smile to the security guard in our building in the morning. It’s not that easy though, and sometimes I still confuse love and attachment. It’s hard to try to be nice without remembering the awful experiences in my sophomore year, but I’m trying to move beyond that.
Sorry that this was disjointed.