Confessions of a Perennial Optimist

Jieyun Lee
Jieyun is a graduating MPA student at the Harvard Kennedy School

I find it very difficult to cry. It’s not like I forgot how – I still cry during sad movies. But for some reason, I can’t cry for myself. I couldn’t even shed a single tear when my grandmother died last summer after a decade-long illness.

It’s like someone turned off the tap for my tears.

But then yesterday, while I was running along the Charles, it happened. Twenty minutes into the run – just as I was approaching the panoramic view of the Boston skyline – I was suddenly overwhelmed by a heavy sensation in my heart. I burst into tears.

For the first time in years, I was crying again. It was as if someone had suddenly turned on the tap and years’ worth of grief came flooding out. I felt as if I had resurfaced after a long dive and taken the first breath. It was cathartic.

After the initial relief that I still had the ability to cry, I began to search for the meaning of my sudden outpouring. Why now? Why here?

I had adjusted well to the new lifestyle of online classes. I worked out via Zoom every morning at 8am. I walked or ran along the Charles every day. I was on top of the situation and had everything under control. My life was even more disciplined than before the pandemic.

After years of training as an optimist, it was too difficult for me to allow myself to feel any negativity. Despite my colleagues’ rants, I could only think of the blessings this unprecedented situation had brought: I had more energy during classes because I did not have to commute to school every day; I could actually do my readings and was getting more out of the lectures; I started eating healthy because I had more time to cook; I watched and re-watched all the movies I had missed on Netflix. As a type-A introvert with lots of time on my hands, I was able to finish so many of my long overdue chores. I even cleaned out over half of my wardrobe and organized it by function, Marie-Kondo style.

Missing the graduation ceremony is a shame. I would have loved to experience the grandeur of Harvard Commencement firsthand. I would also have loved to upload a picture of myself in full academic regalia on my Instagram feed so that the world would know I got a degree from Harvard. But at the end of the day, I have graduated many times before. And let’s face it, isn’t it just another photo op?

With all this positivity and reframing, I just did not have room for grief.

But today, standing on the Charles river esplanade, I was forced to face the uncomfortable truth: this is not the end I had in mind when I arrived at Harvard almost two years ago. And I was not okay with it.

The first memory I have here is standing at the Prudential skywalk observatory, looking down at the neat rows of brownstones in Back Bay. I felt so lucky and excited to have a clean slate once again in my life.

Although I don’t know exactly what ending I had in mind, I know for certain that this is not it. And for that I am angry. I feel sorry for myself. I realize that I am not the mature optimist who has everything under control. Instead, I’ve shoved my negative feelings deep inside and bottled them up so tightly that even I could not access them.

After booking my flight home, I contemplated various ways in which I could spend my last week in Cambridge. There are a million things I could be doing now. In fact, there were a million things I had planned to do during this precious free time before reentering the workforce. I was going to run a marathon in Cape Cod, go scuba diving in the Galapagos Islands, and hike the half-dome in Yosemite. If I had time, I would have biked through Death Valley. Instead, I am sitting in my small studio selling my used furniture at half price on Facebook.

Being an optimist, I tried to plan for all the alternative ways to make the most of this situation and keep myself occupied. I could rent a car and drive around the New England countryside for some fresh air or change of scenery. I could read Yuval Harari’s ‘Sapiens’ which had been languishing on my bookshelf since forever. I could push myself to keep a strict exercise regimen to shed the extra weight I gained during graduate school.

But now, I realize that none of the above will really make up for all the things I lost and missed. Ironically, through this realization, I was able to free myself of the idea that I should do something. So, I walked back home, poured myself a glass of homemade sangria, and sat down on the floor of my now empty studio. And I began to make a mental list of all things lost and missed due to the pandemic – so I could spend the next week grieving every single one of them.

 


The Citizen is the independent, official newspaper of the Harvard Kennedy School. Our mission is to seek the full truth on university and community affairs. In doing so, we challenge assumptions and spark meaningful dialogue on the identity and ideals of HKS. We strive to help the school achieve its own goal: allow people to leave safer, freer, and more prosperous lives. 

We are looking for editors for next year, including associate editors and chief editors. If you’re interested in finding out more, e-mail us at the_citizen@hks.harvard.edu, or drop-in to our Zoom info session on June 2nd from 6 pm to 7 pm EST [https://harvard.zoom.us/j/96357592256]. 

 

Photo Credit: Jeff Turner

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