In some ways, it’s been a sad couple of weeks for me. As a half-Israeli American Jew, I spend a lot of time in tense worry about the current conflict–about family members and dear friends and innocent people on both sides who are waiting out this summer of war. And two days ago, I found out that a Harvard classmate, a fellow rising sophomore who had lived in my dorm, had passed away unexpectedly. Though I had never met her, the random senselessness of her death stung. Lately I’ve felt that there’s too much pain like that in the world: pain that can’t really be explained or gotten over.
Meanwhile, my summer continues here at Dumbarton Oaks, probably the most beautiful and peaceful place I’ve ever had the pleasure of getting to know. Sometimes, as I play in the pool or wander the shady walks, I wonder if it’s wrong for me to be so happy here–if it means I’m slipping into pampered apathy about the outside world. Given the opportunity, we insulate ourselves from pain, focusing on the peace and joy in our own lives rather than the suffering in someone else’s. It’s human to do that. But is it right?
This is a question I still struggle with. On one hand, thinking exclusively about our own troubles and pleasures can lead to a loss of empathy and, perhaps worse, to simple ignorance of what’s going on around us. We should stand in solidarity with people who are suffering, and we should never stop trying to make them feel less alone.
On the other hand, though, I think there’s another kind of empathy that can arise from the deep enjoyment of peace. When I walk the bustling streets of DC at night, where people of all ages and ethnicities turn out to take a draught of the heady summer air, I hope that the streets of Tel Aviv and Gaza can someday feel this free. When I meander alone among the flower beds in the gardens, I hope that the loved ones of my lost classmate, and all grieving loved ones, may someday feel so at peace. Places like Dumbarton Oaks may not be solving the world’s problems or even ameliorating its pain. But they do remind us of the peace that can perhaps come after the pain. They show us what we have to keep hoping for.