“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Thus spoke Aristotle, one of the early proponents of virtue ethics. Virtue ethics claims that the good we do issues from our good habits, and the bad from the bad. This system is optimistic about human nature: bad habits can be made good.
With this in mind, let’s reconsider that most sacred of Duke traditions: not liking Duke in the least. Many of us agree that Duke isn’t a great place, and there are reasons Duke isn’t great, but oh well, that’s how it is. We blame “effortless perfection.” We blame Duke’s “culture.” We blame things that sound large and distant enough to be beyond our control. Oh well. But how many of these amorphous problems are no more than individual failures to treat each other like human beings?
We join clubs and communities to seek out a diverse and inclusive group of friends—if those “friends” can survive auditions or rush. And if no exclusive group suits our taste, fear not! We’ll just make our own. (Here’s looking at you, Hyde House.)
Once we have these “friends,” we’re delighted to keep up with them—so long as it fits our schedule, which it likely doesn’t. “Let’s grab lunch” is Duke for “Goodbye forever.”
On those rare occasions we do socialize, we do so in perfect keeping with our work-hard, play-hard ethic. We work, sinking ourselves deep into our own concerns and deadlines and obligations, and then wonder why we’re lonely after making no time for anyone else. This seems counterintuitive. We play, finding a party and get so hammered that we can’t quite remember all those beautiful moments we shared together. This, also, seems counterintuitive.
And sometimes, our cohesion as a community is tested. We’re publicly outraged when hate crimes occur—like good Duke students should be—and then most of us retreat into our own cares—like good Duke students often do. We wear our “allyship” on our sleeves, but is it any more than skin-deep?
The problem is this. We lionize bystander intervention but do nothing to prevent the thousands of common cruelties that happen here every day. Is it any wonder that our community so often fails to care for us, when we do so little to make a habit of caring for each other?
These common cruelties add up. They are death by a thousand cuts. Look at the numbers. The most recent survey of Duke students, undergraduate and graduate, found that 80 percent of Duke students felt “very lonely” in the preceding twelve months. 64 percent of women and 44 percent of men have experienced hopelessness, with comparable rates of “overwhelming anxiety.” 50 percent of women and 30 percent of men suffered from near-crippling depression. 15 percent of women considered suicide, and 10 percent practiced self-harm. 65 percent of us rated our stress at “more than average.” (These data were last collected in a biennial survey in 2016. Either all the miserable people graduated, or we still have these problems.) In 2017 alone, Counseling and Psychological Services added eight new counselors, in part to reflect student diversity.
Duke is quite inclusive, after all—misery accepts all comers.
It is disgusting to blame this on “Duke culture” and throw up our hands. “Duke culture” isn’t some shadowy being looming over us. Our culture is what we make it. Our “effortless perfection” is some people choosing to put others down. “Work-hard, play-hard” is our choice to be self-destructive together rather than content on our own. “Social pressures” are the hollow checklists we use, as legal adults, to decide who plays in our sandbox. Any of these problems—and the list goes on—are very serious. But they do not exist in the ether. We perpetuate them. They exist in our cumulative choices to do worse when we should do better.
However, the failures of some do not mitigate the good work done by many. There are many student groups who work unceasingly for a better Duke, who are the first responders to the worst of what we do to each other. There are individuals who try to find the good in this place, end up emotionally exhausted, but carry on. There are those who can do no more than maintain themselves, struggle to do so, and do so anyway. These are the best of us. These words are not for them. These words are for those of us who can and should do more.
You hate Duke? Put up or shut up. Make concrete commitments to make this place better, and to make your habits better. Keep commitments with your friends. Offer others the same blanket acceptance of their authentic selves that we all demand for ourselves. Call out that person in your club who’s derisive toward other members. Reach out to that person who haven’t heard from in a while. If something not right is happening at a party—and it will—don’t save it for brunch the next day. Address it then. Make a difference. These small choices—these good choices—will add up. Yes, the powers-that-be could do more, and yes, it would be easier if the bad actors among us simply stopped. We can wait for someone else to do something, and nothing happens. Or we ourselves can act, and something happens.
I leave you with the words of the mystic St. Teresa of Avila. “Christ has no body now but yours, no hands but yours.” Whatever your beliefs, the point is clear. Whatever good we want done, we’ll have to do it ourselves. And there will be reasons not to do this good. Your midterm. Your paper. Your application. It doesn’t involve your “group.” No one’s helping you. But this is a choice about what kind of person you want to be. This is a choice about who you see in the mirror.
You can be a creator of some small good, or a spectator to our lesser angels. I hope the choice is easy.
Tim Kowalczyk is a Trinity senior. His column runs on alternate Wednesdays.
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Tim Kowalczyk is a Trinity sophomore. His column, "the academy matters," runs on alternate Thursdays.