A Mediocre Piece of Journalism

I celebrated my twentieth half-birthday (or my twenty-and-a-halfth birthday) by moving all my belongings in Germany up and down six flights of stairs. In wedge heels.

I hadn’t expected it, but that turned out to be the best present I could give to myself. I had been living for the previous month with Anke, a 30-something filmmaker who seemed to have decided that her latest creative project was to make my life miserable. After the first few days I began to wonder if she had my demise storyboarded somewhere in the secret parts of the apartment that I wasn’t allowed to enter. Even our conversations sounded like dramatic movie fights. Once she took me into the kitchen to scold me about something and I politely excused myself in German to buzz in a friend who had come to  recover the cell phone he had lent me. She turned her cold stare upon me and declared, in halting English without a hint of questioning, “Oh, you have guests now.”

But this piece isn’t about my awful travails in Anke’s (admittedly gorgeous)apartment. It’s about why I stayed so long, and why I finally decided to leave. Even as I realized that I was miserable during those first four weeks, even as I walked to work crying one day, even as friends from the U.S. came to visit and confirmed how rude Anke was to me, I never thought of moving. Three words in particular kept coming into my thoughts: “Stick it out, stick it out.” Even if I hated it, I reasoned, I would get through it.

I had almost fooled myself into fully adopting this mentality when one day, waiting to cross a street in the Kreuzberg, I heard myself reflect, “Well, if I’m struggling I’m doing something right” and recognized a tone totally contrary to everything I thought I was. To the extent that I had inherited a culture, nowhere in my very hybrid Catholic-Jewish Asian-Spanish-Eastern European parentage was there even a hint of the kind of Puritanism that values “sticking it out” above all else. More importantly, the sentiment had never guided my decisions in high school, where I wasn’t ashamed to take steps to make life easier for myself.

Sticking it out was something I had picked up at Harvard, a place where the primary fear is of failing—at anything, ever. The corollary of the anxiety about failure is a willingness to do almost anything to make an endeavor seem successful. No matter if acknowledging our minor mistakes, like my choosing the wrong roommate, could dramatically increase our happiness.

I have no doubt that I could have stuck it out longer with Anke in Berlin. I chose not to. Perseverance had become my default stance, even when there was no motivation to persevere, even when my determination to make the best of a difficult situation paradoxically meant that I didn’t try to improve the situation. What I understood that July day in the Kreuzberg, a week before I finally packed my things and moved out, was that I needed to step back and think about why I was sticking it out. What I found was that there was no reason.

None of this means that I’ve given up on difficult endeavors. Within a week of the publication of this article, I’ll drive to Louisiana to join Teach for America as a high school English teacher in the New Orleans public school system. I am certain that my job will pose an almost infinite number of challenges and require a fair amount of determination. But now that I’ve discarded perseverance as an ideology—sticking it out for the sake of sticking it out—I can see the deeper factors that might justify temporary struggle. In New Orleans, I’ll know that I have the opportunity to have a positive impact on my students. Similarly, when I was working on my English thesis, a project I could have dropped with very few consequences, I enjoyed it because I knew that my motivation was not fear of failure, nor a robotlike dedication to work.

It sounds astoundingly simple, but it’s taken me four years to realize that the attributes that form our core values at Harvard—perseverance, hard work, determination—are valuable only as means to an end, not as ends in themselves. And while I’m glad that Harvard has enabled me to apply these towards worthy causes, like Teach for America, or even in support of more personal projects, like my thesis, they are tools and nothing more. They are not a valid ideology; they are not a measure of success.

I can hear graduates shaking their mortar-boarded heads in unison and maintaining that what I’ve said is painfully obvious. No one thinks they work just to work, because no one wants to believe they’ve become the embodiment of the Protestant Ethic or the Spirit of Capitalism. But the truth is that even the most laid-back socialist-leaning Catholic-Jewish Asian-Spanish-Eastern Europeans among us have internalized some of those principles. Until I gave them up last summer, that is.

Look, I’ll prove there’s a difference between unsuspectingly Puritanical you and enlightened, reflective me. See where you are on the page? You’ve persevered all the way through to the end, reading a mediocre piece of journalism, whereas I’m not even going to try to muster the determination to finish writing it. You’re still here sticking it out, while I’m off daydreaming in the grass by the river. Come join me.

Marianne F. Kaletzky ’08 is an English and American literature and language concentrator in Mather House. She is a former Crimson arts chair.