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In September of 2022, I became depressed. I’ve battled depression for most of my life, and this iteration was not caused by any misdeeds on Harvard’s part. Really, I don’t know what caused it. Nobody is to blame, except maybe the inevitability of change and separation. That elusivity made the depression feel hopeless in a way that it never had before. It wasn’t explained by being mercilessly bullied, or by losing someone I loved. It couldn’t be fixed by moving to a city, or by pretending I was happy. Sometimes I would walk back to my dorm at midnight, exhausted, cold, and alone, and just stop and stare forward, hating myself for feeling the way I did.
But when I got home for winter break, I watched “Harvey.”
“Harvey” is a comedy film, released in 1950, based on a play by Mary Chase. It follows Elwood P. Dowd, an eccentric alcoholic whose best friend is an invisible, six-foot-tall rabbit named Harvey, as well as his sister Veta and her attempts to institutionalize him. Initially, Elwood is ostracized, treated like dirt by everyone in his life. But as the movie goes on, more people start to listen to him and come to see him as an exceedingly kind, gentle, and loving man. In one of my favorite lines of the movie, Elwood says: “Years ago, my mother used to say to me — she’d say, [...] ‘In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart, or oh so pleasant.’ Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant.”
I was inspired to watch “Harvey” while reading John M. Green’s “The Anthropocene Reviewed,” a book of nonfiction essays in which the author reviews aspects of his life on a five-star scale. In his review of the film, Green invokes Elwood’s quote while talking about his own debilitating bout with depression. It made him feel less alone, made him more comfortable, and gave him hope. “In December of 2001, there was perhaps no human alive on Earth who needed to hear those words more than I did,” Green says.
Like it did for Green, “Harvey” gave me hope and reason. And like Green said, “Hope is not easy or cheap. It is true.” For so much of my life, I’ve tried to be “oh so smart.” This came to a head in the sixth grade during my first serious bout with depression. I was being mercilessly bullied, but my defensive response was to become self absorbed, mean, and combative. I had dangerously low self confidence and a desperate need for validation, because of a deep rooted worry that I was insignificant.
After sixth grade, I tried to change. I moved schools, surrounded myself with different people. The most important change, however, was a newfound willingness to listen. I continued to battle occasional depression, but it felt manageable. I wasn’t the only person struggling with self worth, with sadness, or with pain. That gradual realization also came with a dramatic shrinkage of my overinflated ego. I built legitimate confidence — the type that wasn’t rooted in convincing myself that I was superior to others. I realized, for the first time, that everyone was just as complex as I was.
But the ugliness that used to dominate my life began to bubble up again when I moved to Cambridge. My progress wasn’t completely undone, but I felt, for the first time in years, the need to be smart, which is perhaps an unfortunate inevitability of being at a place like Harvard. And what I needed, desperately, was to be pleasant.
In “Harvey,” when Elwood is talking to two Sanitarium workers who’ve tracked him down about the people he meets at the local bar, he says: “They tell about the big terrible things they’ve done and the big wonderful things they’ll do. Their hopes and their regrets, their loves and their hates. All very large, because nobody ever brings anything small into a bar.”
Nobody ever brings anything small into a party, a rehearsal, a class, or anywhere, really. Listening has made me realize that I’m not alone — and that really, nobody else is, either. Those moments where I’m pleasant, not smart, are the best moments of my life. I want to know people’s wants and hopes and regrets. And I want to be there for people to share them with me. I want to understand those big things. Doing that has made me happier and more pleasant, and it has filled my life with beauty. It has made me realize that my ongoing mental health struggle is not a curse I uniquely have been bestowed with, but that pain and grief are universal.
The world is amazing, complicated, and messy. And by far the most amazing, most complicated, and messiest part of the world is people. We have spent thousands of years trying to understand what it means to be human. And the only way we can do that is to listen, and to understand what it’s like to be someone other than ourselves. I’m not expecting you to be as kind as Elwood. I’m just asking you to listen, to try to understand the people around you. It will fill your life with beauty and complexity.
Next time you feel alone, sit down and listen to someone you care about. And try watching “Harvey.”
Vander O. B. Ritchie ’26, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Matthews Hall.
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