May / June 2007
Last month we experienced vicariously the terror of the Virginia Tech tragedy. For many in our community the terror was not vicarious. They are graduates of Virginia Tech, had family members there and are tied to that hurting community in a myriad of ways. Some of us have wondered if such a thing could happen here. The answer is not very comforting: it could happen here. I do not think it will and I can tell you why, but tragedy is a companion in life and to pretend it is not does not serve our community well. Safety is something we desire and understandably so, but our reality is that total safety is an illusion.
At the same time we were grieving over what happened in Blacksburg, two of our own students died in unrelated accidents. I am wary of reducing the enormous tragedy of young lives lost to statistics, but it is important to know that each year we can expect student deaths and while young lives lost seem particularly unfair, we have also lost peers, colleagues, and mentors. Grieving is always going to be part of life in a community. So in addition to asking “How may we be safe?”, we also must ask “How are we to grieve?”
Let me comment first on safety. Over the course of nearly 30 years at MIT, I have been involved in most of our acute emergencies. I have searched rooms for guns, asked police to remove them from rooms, talked troubled students out of labs and rooms and into circumstances where they could receive help, and encouraged others when they had done the same things. These are always team efforts and possible here at MIT because we are a community that talks together about crises and potential crises in the daily sequence of events. The right hand knows what the left hand is concerned about and when difficulties develop there are people who can connect the dots.
We have a professional campus police cadre that are well trained and who know the difference between the streets around MIT and the heart of the Institute. While tensions develop from time to time that may involve the police, the inherent stresses that affect the community tend to be transitory.
Counseling services are also part of the conversation. Privacy concerns are honored, but the bias is in favor of intervention when safety issues are raised. We know that even the best efforts of professionals can be thwarted by bad luck and circumstances that may intervene, but the framework is there for a reasonable system committed to the safety of our community.
But what else might we do to make that framework even more effective?
From my perspective, the most important thing we can do is to recognize that we have some conflicting priorities that need to be examined and rethought.
We desire to be safe. We desire to be let alone and allowed to do our work. We do not like to waste time on ambiguities. We desire to encourage and promote behaviors that are often creative but unusual because we believe that those who often shape the future are sometimes a bit at variance from the norm. We tolerate a high degree of eccentricity. We in fact celebrate eccentricity. That celebration means that sometimes the behavior of students and colleagues is not flagged as it might otherwise be. Who wants to be the one to tell Ben Franklin not to take his kite out in the storm?
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What are we then to do? For several years now, along with a creative group of colleagues, we have had a program called “When Support Gets Personal” that has educated staff on the resources available to them when they are worried about individuals. On average about 60 people a year have gone through this program and the goal is simply to help them understand our student community and to know who to call when they are concerned and need advice - anytime, day or night.
Those resources begin with the Dean for Student Life at 617-253-4052 and Student Support Services at 617-253-4861. After hours there is a Dean on Call who can be contacted by calling the Campus Police at 617-253-1212. Faculty may also wish to touch base with Mental Health at 617-253-2916 and consultation with the Campus Police is not inappropriate. In all of these places questions may be asked and advice sought. You may continue to own the problem or you may hand it off. Better still, you may get involved in a process that deals with the needs you perceive and the anxieties you feel. Few problems are solved with a single interaction and over time you can develop a relationship with helping resources that will offer comfort and solutions in situations that range from the mundane to the profound.
Things, however, may not always go as we wish. The nature of our life together also dictates that from time to time we will experience losses that hurt terribly and for which there is no system that can protect us. When jolted by tragedy and loss, how do we respond?
In January, I was appointed the first Chaplain to the Institute. Part of my job description was to ask just that question: “How do we respond to loss?” When I first came here, the prevailing metaphor was that of a machine. MIT was like a huge machine that simply kept moving. We seldom paused and when we did there were those who noted critically that not much work got done! The end result was that little attention was paid and we were rather callous and unreflective in our responses to a significant part of the human experience.
I am grateful that this attitude has changed over time and the appointment of a Chaplain speaks to that change. Part of my task will be to ask about how we are to grieve and to seek ways to help that happen. After Virginia Tech, we held a memorial service for those lost in Blacksburg and when our own resident Hokies came to share their grief, it was clear that this was an important gesture.
If conversation protects us from danger, it also contributes to our healing in times of loss. To facilitate these healing conversations, we have put in place protocols that should help in planning memorial activities.
More importantly, however, we all can come to recognize our need to carve out space so we can reflect and respond to those circumstances that challenge our very being.
In our lives together, the most important lessons we learn may well be how to survive and grow through the sorrows that would otherwise stop us in our tracks.
So, where do these responses leave us? I think that total safety is an illusion, but we have in place resources and plans that contribute to our wellbeing in even the most challenging circumstances. As well, we have come to realize that how we deal with the unthinkable can contribute to our long-term wellbeing. To my mind MIT is a healthy and safe community. I am not sure one can ask for more.
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