A Jar That Is Not Full

Photo Credit: https://goo.gl/IfBV3g

By Ivan Rahman, MPA/MBA Stanford, 2019

You don’t mind attention. In fact, you probably like it. You enjoy being seen and known every now and then. You relish feeling special and wanted. You refresh your Facebook page, after you’ve just posted something about yourself, to see how many likes you’ve accumulated. Also, most of your sentences in your emails to others start with “I.” When you ask a guest speaker a question, the first three minutes of it are about yourself—unnecessarily. You also suck at listening to others, unless the topic is you, of course.

Perhaps being at Harvard amplifies your need for attention. After all, you’re surrounded by superstars here. And when you’re surrounded by superstars, it’s easy to feel overlooked, more so than you’re used to.

It’s okay. You’re not a bad person for craving attention. Honestly. It’s human nature to desire attention. It’s also healthy to be narcissistic to some degree. Healthy narcissism, for example, is what prompts you to groom yourself and look presentable for a job interview or social gathering. But being excessively narcissistic may not work to your favor. Excessive narcissism causes you to feel entitled, act superior towards others, and minimize other people’s input.

Our pets are adorable when they exhibit attention-seeking behavior. Sadly, the same does not hold true for humans. Still, I don’t vilify behavior aimed at obtaining the spotlight. Rather than judge the behavior, I strive to understand where it comes from and see it for what it is: a longing to feel respected and loved. When we let such behavior go unchecked, however, we can become so wrapped up in ourselves and the attention we receive that we fail to notice—in the fullest sense of the word—the hardships of others.

My high school self is a case in point. I used to run the two-mile as a member of my high school track team. In my junior or senior year, I made it to the state championship for New York’s independent schools. I thought I was amazing for making it to the state level. I would feast on the many congratulations I received from my classmates and teachers. Yet, if I could go back in time and slap myself out of that ridiculous self-absorption, I would. Why? Because, around that time, my good friend’s parents got divorced.

My friend didn’t talk much about the divorce, but the repercussions were disheartening. He started dealing drugs and missing classes. Unfortunately, I was not there for him as much as I could have been. My mind was on smaller things.

As I finish my first year at Harvard, I wonder about all the online and in-person noise we generate in our pursuit of attention. I am reminded of a proverb that my friend and mentor, Wei Luo (MPP ’17), shared with me back in January: “It is a jar that is not full that makes noise when it is shaken, whereas one that is full is quiet.”

We don’t need to be quiet all, or even most, of the time. But by being a little quieter, we can better perceive the pain of another person. We can better support those who are hurting.