Towards Communal Tenderness


(Alexis Teyie) — I left Amherst last Christmas and when I returned this fall, I found the international students’ office replaced a few counseling center spaces on the second floor of Keefe. I imagine the move was justified, and I’m international so I shan’t complain. I quite liked the drop-in sessions, though, and according to the website, “Let’s Talk” is suspended until some unspecified time in the future. Amherst certainly offers a range of mental health services, and I’m enjoying the Life Stories lunch series. Even so, it’s taking a little getting used to, and a lot more effort not to read too much into the shift.

Of course, there are several adjustments administration can and should consider to make the counseling center better responsive to the needs of students, and particularly students of color. That requires a longer conversation, but I’m excited to see how the Student Support Network shapes up. What this is, however, is a request to be gentler with each other. We all have our traumas, our small tragedies. We bear these trials with us, even if we pray they don’t colour our confident campus avatars. We all have our secret triumphs. Waking up. Eating a full meal. Smiling at that stranger. Sharing a thought in class. Leaning into a hug. Learning a new dance. Sleeping an entire night uninterrupted. Can we be more sensitive to each other’s inner lives?

If a communal tenderness is the goal, language is a good place to start. Let us be conscientious in our use of certain words. I would hope no one uses “retarded” as an insult anymore. Could we extend that conscientiousness further? It might seem ridiculous but I cringe whenever someone says flippantly, “oh Alex you’re so crazy.” Crazy is a loaded term. It is often used to dismiss women as hysterical, and as a weapon intended to diminish and disparage women of colour especially. That mad woman. This was my greatest fear – to be described as such. Until I was. Clinically. My diagnosis required me to recuperate certain ways of thinking, and being. How do I inhabit a place within myself in which I am both whole and mentally ill? How can such an illness not reflect a character flaw, or supreme incompetence? Because we encompass multitudes. And all of us are superheroes. Still, I cringe when bipolar is used interchangeably with ‘flaky’ or ‘violent.’ These, you overhear trying to move on this campus. Or when a friend says they’d never go to the counseling center because “things aren’t that bad.” Just a PSA, the counselors aren’t only there for worst case scenarios. But, of course, the implication is that only really broken people need mental health services, and who wants to be those people? There are differing opinions on ‘policing language’ or ‘political correctness’ and that’s your prerogative – certainly. I only implore that we become more aware of the assumptions we’re making, and what might be at stake for the other people we live with on this campus.

Now, I realize the wellness tag these days is take care of yourself but I am beginning to resent what this seems to imply: that love emerges ex nihilo, that it is possible, somehow, within a greater system of interconnected oppressions to care for myself, heroically, and all the while submitting assignments on time. Yes to care. Yes to self-respect. Yes to being kind and patient with ourselves but a thousand times yes to taking care of each other.

As it is, it’s still difficult to talk about mental health on campus – as well as questions of class, it seems to me. Can and should we rehabilitate our understanding of care? I believe in compassion – that is, co-suffering. I believe in fellow feeling built upon understanding and respectfulness.

I am currently practicing how to say thank you to help even before it’s offered, because “yes, please help me” doesn’t come as easily. It is an act of faith. I am trusting that, despite past incidences, there are many people on this campus perpetually about to do something kind and brave. I am trusting that I am a person both capable of and deserving of kind and courageous gestures. So thank you for opening the door for me tomorrow. Thank you for understanding why I can’t respond to that email right this minute, or even next week. Thank you for the hug you’ll give me in a fortnight. Thank you for trusting me with your private sorrows and your personal joys. Thank you for doing what you can.