February 21, 2014

Where do we go from here?

Misperceptions surround Barnes’s death.

To become acquainted with a fellow student through the eulogies dedicated to him is something infinitely devastating. Even as these words express to us all the extent of the loss we have suffered in Nicholas Barnes, the outpouring of such love and support from so many places is also a reminder of all that is good in our community.

Yet while there has been such love shown, there has also been some blame thrown around. The instinctive reaction to place blame on someone for something so tragic is not unusual, but it is disappointing. It’s an ugly blight upon what ought to be a time of mourning and remembrance. Thankfully, we can at least say that most of those doing the blaming are those who do not have a sense of the nature of our community.

For us, the tragedy is primarily the fact that a fellow student, full of life and promise, who meant so much to his friends and family, passed away so suddenly, so illogically, so heartbreakingly. For outsiders, the tragedy is chiefly related not to the fact that he died, but instead to the fact that he was not found for so long. They incorrectly assume that the circumstances mean that he was without friends, and that somehow his peers have failed him.  Part of their ignorance is based simply on lack of information from those closest to him—they assume that just because friends’ attempts to contact him were not reported in the articles, no contact was actually attempted, which is, from what I have heard, false.

Some may also be operating under the assumption that our college experience is exactly like what they experienced—theirs is a vision of college in which people are constantly going in and out of other people’s dorm rooms, having parties, hanging out in one common space.

As many have pointed out in an attempt to correct these misunderstandings, the fact that Barnes lived in a single in I-House, unusually organized as it is, and the fact that we were in the midst of midterms all contributed to the situation. Beyond that, our school is, for better or worse, different—we start off in the housing system, often making friends within our houses who may or may not live next door or on the same floor; sometimes we, for one reason or another, move off campus or into another house, and we may or may not establish new connections with neighbors. Finally, and most crucially, we live in a community that especially prioritizes academic rigor.

As a result of these differences, especially that last one, we don’t find it strange not to hear from one another for some time, or not to see each other in the hallway after a long day of classes. Sometimes we spend hours, or whole nights and days, at the Reg or Harper, making it almost impossible for friends to be each others’ keepers.

One of the quotes used in the news articles on Barnes’s death was from a student who questioned why “the people who were responsible for his well-being could have not seen that he has been gone for a week.” I think the troubling realization that we are all coming to terms with is that we are all responsible for each other’s well-being, to an extent. Like it or not, there is not always a central authority to make sure that everyone is present and accounted for, and it’s not always easy to reach out to everyone, especially in the midst of midterms, when we have a lot on our plates.

Maybe we need to become a community where we all reach out to our friends not only to ask how they’re doing, but also to tell them how we’re doing, to build support systems on good, regular communication, so that it will feel strange to not have seen someone for a few days, and we won’t just assume that it was a side-effect of midterms. This is not to say that, had this been more widely practiced in the first place, Barnes would have been discovered sooner, or that this is a perfect formula for preventing future tragedy, but rather that it is the only real solution. To strengthen our bonds as a community is the best and bravest thing we can endeavor to do as we try to deal with the grief.

We cannot—and ought not to—pick out a scapegoat. To concentrate blame on those who were close to him is to heap more sadness upon those who already feel the pain of his loss most acutely. Yes, Barnes’s death was tragic. Yes, it reminds us all of the importance of expressing love and support for others while we can, but it also reminds us that some things are out of anyone’s control. In the wake of death, we can only endeavor to live fully, to love more, and to always remember.

Katie O'Shea is a fourth-year in the College majoring in English.