This is the transcript of a short speech I gave at Memorial Church in Cambridge, MA on September 20, 2012. As part of their daily 15-minute Morning Prayers service (which has been held continuously since the University was founded in 1636), somebody in the Harvard community is invited to give a 5-minute talk on any topic at all. Usually the speaker begins with a reading from the Bible and ends with a prayer, but I was allowed to choose a different kind of scriptural lesson, and to close with a meaningful quote.
No man is an Island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main; if a Clod be washed away by the Sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a Promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.
John Donne, “Meditation XVII”
One week ago today, the bell of this church tolled twenty times. Or, at least, that’s what I was told. I never heard it. I remember walking away from the church, and I suppose I was mostly looking down because I remember the candles in little paper bags that reminded me of Halloween. I remember turning around to watch the river of silhouettes flowing through the Yard between the winding banks of candles. I remember Nicholas Christakis asking me for the second time that night if I was okay. Mostly I remember feeling guilty.
Before the candles, I remember the cranes. They were the first thing I noticed when I entered the church because they were so out of place. Strings and strings of vividly colored little paper birds, looking disheveled but earnest, were draped over the big things in the center aisle that I have always assumed are candlesticks. I shuffled past them into a pew and slid down to make room for others, but I was sorry to be separated from the birds. I found them comforting and wanted to stay by them, perhaps so I could feel less out of place by comparison.
I don’t think, if you had asked him to list some of his friends, that Cote would have mentioned me. We never hung out alone. We didn’t really see each other outside of the house we shared for just one year. I never talked to him about anything really personal in my life, nor did he divulge such things to me – though I have spent much of the last two weeks wishing that he had.
The truth is that most of what I know about Cote I learned not from him, but from his obituary. I read that he adored his home state of New Hampshire. I read that he sang in the Glee Club, a fact which I registered as something I had once known but forgotten. I read that he often spent whole evenings in the dining hall playing Bananagrams with anybody willing. This made me uneasy because I knew of one other person who did that frequently last year: me. I racked my memory for snippets of games with him – a word, a laugh, a competitive grin – and I came up empty. Rather than cherishing memories of our shared interest, I am ashamed to admit that I have no idea whether I played with him fifty times or never at all.
In fact, the most vivid images I have of Cote are the ones of my own unwilling invention. For a whole weekend, I couldn’t stop watching little movies of him in my head. Sometimes they showed him in the way I remember him best: playing his guitar and singing. More often, though, I saw a handgun in a mouth, or a rope snapping taught, over and over. Since I didn’t know what means he had used to end his own life, any mundane occurrence could trigger a new type of movie in my head. I opened the cabinet to find my allergy medicine, and I watched Cote open a bottle with shaking hands and pour out a fistful of pills. I reached for my razor to shave, and I watched Cote slice his own arm open. I glanced out a window, and I watched the ground rush toward me through Cote’s eyes.
Ever since I’d learned of Cote’s death, people had been asking me questions I couldn’t answer. “How did he do it?” “I don’t know.” “Why did he do it?” “I don’t know.” “Had he been depressed?” “I don’t know.” I realized the depth of my ignorance when I called one of the Harvard Chaplains for help arranging a vigil and failed to answer his basic questions. “What was Cote’s faith?” “I don’t know.” “What was his major?” “I don’t know,” I answered for the hundredth time.
I knew my dramatic reaction to Cote’s death gave people the impression that I had been closer with him than I really was. I felt guilty for deceiving everyone, for being more upset than I had a right to be, for going home early from work because I couldn’t stop the suicide movies, for visiting my old dorm three times in one weekend, for sitting two rows behind Cote’s family and sobbing louder than any of them. Crying felt like lying.
I suppose I’ve been trained to see excessive displays of suffering as selfishly histrionic. But part of me suspects that every death truly is an immeasurable loss to each of us, and we just feel most of them less than we ought to because the loss is not immediately apparent.
Today it is easier than ever to disconnect from humanity. The technology that is supposed to connect us in unprecedented ways more often leaves us feeling radically isolated. We have traded the small, tightly knit nomadic tribes of our ancestors for a globalized monstrosity. Texts replace conversations, and friendship is lost amidst mindless friending. In such an environment, what is it to me if I learn that I can never see again someone I probably would have never seen again anyway?
Everything. Every person has the potential to make the world I live in more beautiful or more just. So any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind. Even if you did not know him, and even if you cannot tell quite how, your world is a little emptier without Cote Laramie. He was a piece of the Continent, a part of the main, and when he disappeared, Earth was the less.
Somehow, Cote lost track of this deep connection. All around him, he saw only waves, rolling in from the horizon in every direction to lap at his edges. When you feel surrounded by water with no land in sight, it is easy to allow yourself to be washed away by the Sea.
I still don’t know how or why Cote did what he did. But there are a lot of things that I do know now. I know that I probably could not have done anything to stop it, but I know that I would certainly have tried if he had given me the chance. I know that every person in this room and on this planet is treasured more than they can possibly realize. I know that the world can look like a very lonely place, full of unanswerable questions and unattainable desires and devoid of guidance or purpose. I know that it has often looked this way to me, and I suspect that it looks this way to everybody sometimes. But I also know that you, like Cote, are surrounded not by indifferent water, but by billions of people connected to you in billions of ways who are ready to remind you how important you are.
For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love.
Carl Sagan, Contact
Chelsea Link recently graduated from Harvard University, where she studied History & Science with a focus in the history of medicine. She is the founder and intermittent author of Blogging Biblically (documenting her attempt to read the Bible in a year…ish), and has contributed to blogs such as the Interfaith Youth Core and Social Action Massachusetts. She has also left a trail of abandoned blog detritus in her wake, ranging from Sewage & Syphilis to The Unelectables. While at school, she served as both the Vice President of Outreach of the Harvard Secular Society and the President of the Harvard College Interfaith Council. Now that she’s graduated, she is a full-time Adult Impersonator, complete with an apartment (in the People’s Republic of Cambridge, Massachusetts), a full-time job (as the Campus Organizing Fellow at the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard), a part-time job (as a Teaching Assistant for a Harvard course on Darwin), and an automobile (a sassy red one named Sofia Vercara). In her spare time, Chelsea runs bone marrow drives as a Volunteer Ambassador for the National Marrow Donor Program. She also enjoys cooking while pretending she’s on Top Chef, adores word games of all kinds (and was once the President of the illustrious Harvard College Crossword Society), and tends to kill the mood at parties by unnecessarily reciting Shakespeare.