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Hunting for bearhugs

I’m trudging through a hike this summer, ankles coated in dust and nose in 100 SPF sunscreen (yes, unfortunately I do actually wear this), trying to ward off the roasting sun. As the trail turns to the right and I’m rounding the bend, I see the path open up to an area where a small huddle of people are waiting to ascend. There’s a long ladder lying along the steep hill to take us to the next portion of the hike, but with each hiker, it’s started to slip further off the hill. 

One of the hikers decides to solve the issue. Pausing only to straighten the straw hat on his head, he works his way up the hill, dragging the ladder back to the center. When he’s finished, he begins to shuffle back down, but instantly loses his balance. Because the incline is so steep, he stays upright as he begins the longest vertical tripping sequence I’ve ever witnessed. It becomes clear to everybody that upon reaching the bottom of this hill, he’s going to fall and hit the ground but—stuck on various points of the hill—nobody can do anything but watch this happen in slow motion.

At the precisely perfect millisecond, though, a new hiker arrives at the base of the hill. He braces himself in an athletic position and opens his arms into a wide horizon. Straw Hat Man barrels straight towards the newcomer, colliding into this pair of open arms that absorbs his momentum and immediately wraps around him. Not only does Straw Hat Man not take the devastating fall, he’s now engulfed in a sweaty stranger bearhug. 

I’m watching this scene unfold below me, muttering oh my, caretaking in action, and one of my first thoughts is—I wonder where I might see something like this at Duke. No, we’re not trekking up rope ladders to get to class, so the opportunity to bearhug a mid-trip stranger is slim at best. But it made me think about ways that we’re metaphorically doing this for each other. 

Before arriving at Duke in 2018, I heard warning tales from people that Duke is extremely cutthroat, students don’t look out for each other, people are too academically intense to truly invest in relationships

What’s complicated though is that—at its best—the Duke that I’ve observed is built by normal humans committed to bearing a sense of responsibility to each other. The social fabric I’ve been sewn into these past few years is one of caretaking in small, repetitive, often mundane ways, but ways that keep the institution of the university intact. It seems that it’s more difficult for me to remember and recognize these types of interactions though, and they seem to become hazy memories moments later. But I think they’re utterly and urgently crucial. 

Anywhere on Earth, people can be impossibly and unimaginably horrible to each other, opting for apathy, mistreatment or self-serving endeavors at the cost of others’ wellbeing. This absolutely exists and it can also be more complicated in the very same breath. In ways that are completely married to difficulty, pain and grief, there’s a very real place for awareness of kinship, caretaking and honest joy. I’ve been on a mission to search this out. 

Honestly, I’m wary of all this, wary of my own tendency to look for narrative arcs of redemption so that difficulty makes sense, wary that perhaps searching for good, kind things could be a thinly-veiled way of distracting myself from collective suffering at hand. It’s all possible, yet what makes me feel that this isn’t just a foolishly optimistic exercise in denialism is the fact that—in this particular view—the home for the kind and joyful things is inseparable from difficulty, and therefore erasure isn’t an option. These pieces all have to exist together. I’m thinking about how to balance my view of Duke in the same way that I conceptualize general grief. 

I’ve come to view grief as a pesky houseguest. The mind, the body, the soul, they are the house. Personal and communal situations arise and put that pesky houseguest on a train right to your front door. The houseguest invites themself in—often without warning or a chance to prepare the house—yikes, sorry there’s laundry everywhere, I didn’t know you were coming over

The irksome visitor stays as long as they well please, moseying from room to room, sneaking up on us while we mind our own business. It’s totally unsettling, often emotionally and cognitively consuming and ultimately never what we’d opt in to. 

As a result of grief though, I think our capacity to bear witness to the collective hurt of others becomes wider and the lenses through which we understand the story of our lives become larger. 

Sometimes this pesky houseguest of grief or difficulty—or any other word you’d like to substitute here—can create a largening of the self, rebuilding the rooms larger than they were before. This newfound space—the gap between the grief itself and the newfound wideness—this is where I think we have agency to decide what fills the gaps. 

This is not a simple thing though and it’s loaded with contextual specificity. No two persons’ homes or houseguests are the same, so prescribing this approach to someone else with an entirely different set of experiences would be an unhelpful and narrow-minded endeavor. So this is solely my personal experiment, what’s giving me energy right now, and things could certainly evolve. 

The pesky houseguest usually has no qualms waltzing into our homes, arriving in our lives without invitation. If this is the case, then I need to make sure that this isn’t my only houseguest. I want to turn this into a weird dinner party of sorts. The trouble is that the other things I’d like to take up space in my mind—namely, acute awareness of kindness, kinship and care—don’t seem to barrel through the doorway. They seem to lurk outside until intentionally invited in. As someone whose favorite party trick is generally to sit with one or two others on a couch for hours on end, I get it, but they’re going to need some prodding. 

I’m going to need to literally say, awareness of caretaking, you can come sit here at my table, I want you here! So that’s what I’m up to this semester. Roaming around campus looking for rope ladder bearhugs that I can welcome into my home and offer a seat at my table to—right next to the difficulty. 

Duke’s stone benches, Div Caf, the Ruby bus stop—these mundane locations are transforming into my research sites where I’ll station myself, hoping to catch a glimpse of something bizarre and delightful. So far I’ve witnessed strangers bantering as several full buses pass them by, students swapping study rooms in The Link so that one of them could use the TV screen and a first year gleefully shouting hello to their professor from a moving car. 

I expect (and hope) that things will go unexpectedly; for right now, I'm in need of some dinner party guests, and I’m thankful for your company in the search.  

Sara Kate Baudhuin is a Trinity senior. Her column runs on alternate Mondays.

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