The dangers of litost and diving in: When rushing to campus may cause more harm than good

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Mingxin Wang /Staff

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I’ve always been a bit of a softie for Milan Kundera. During one of the darkest periods in my life, his description of “litost,” an untranslatable Czech word, provided such a deep sense of empathy and care for what I was going through that it kept me afloat.

Kundera writes, “Litost is a state of torment created by the sudden sight of one’s own misery.”

I bring up Kundera because in the midst of the pandemic, I found myself returning to his work. I felt a nagging feeling, this newfound loneliness. I lost my campus. I lost my friends. And most of all, I lost my classes, both as a student and as an instructor. My life was in tatters.

But that wasn’t the worst feeling: I felt ashamed for feeling so miserable. I was tormented by the sight of my own misery. I had achieved litost. It sounds stupid, I know. Call me melodramatic.

But the thing is, I know you felt it, too. We all did! Not only were we suffering in misery amid this unprecedented pandemic, but we were also tormented by that very realization, thinking, “Why am I like this? I’m better than this! I just want to go back to normal, and then I’ll be OK.”

But as vaccines became more available, we saw our loved ones again. UC Berkeley announced a return to in-person classes, and our litost seemed to disappear. Down with Zoom University! Long live in-person classes, game days and late-night lines at Taco Bell on Durant!

But I don’t think we are quite ready yet. I’m worried that we are rushing our healing.

Don’t get me wrong. I have hated distanced learning and would give anything to go back. However, it isn’t unreasonable to be wary about the very real effects that the pandemic has had on our psychological development and how a sudden transition will adversely affect our minds.

Let me explain: Imagine it is a windy day and you decide to jump into a pool for the first time in years. But that sudden shock of the cold water is going to be paralyzing. You will be kicking and trying to return to the surface while your body deals with the cold water’s stinging sensation. You will eventually adapt to the temperature of the water and be able to swim, but those first few minutes will be absolute hell.

That initial shock is what scares me about our return to campus. Our brains do not do well with sudden change. Our ability to adapt is largely dependent on two factors: our perception of the stress and how important that stress is to our sense of self.

A study published in 2015 demonstrated that if we underexpect the level of stress in a situation, we are more likely to experience detrimental effects such as anxiety and depression. The closer this sudden change has to our sense of self, the more it affects the magnitude of these detrimental effects.

So, while a pool plunge may not matter much to the sense of self, a return to normalcy does.

To demonstrate, imagine that, instead of a normal plunge, you drastically underestimate the temperature. Instead of mild stinging, it feels like needles plunging deep into every inch of your body. You thought getting into the pool was going to be easy because you used to swim constantly. You feel this anxiety about your ability to swim like you used to, and now it’s that much harder to get used to the water.

Suddenly, not only are we miserable with these feelings, but we also become tormented by the sight of that miserable feeling. Because of our insistence on returning to the pool without preparing for the unknown, we have only rediscovered our litost.

See where I’m going with this?

I know this is a hard pill to swallow, especially when it comes in metaphor. But I beg you to trust me on this. I know how hard it is to accept a sudden change when young, 20-something minds are still developing — not only because I have experience in this field, but because I am a young, 20-something myself.

I’ve had to spend so much time preparing myself for our return, for the sudden immersion with thousands of people. Personal fears aside, we don’t know all the specifics of UC Berkeley’s plans. We may be let down in our reentry to campus life. What scares me the most? We may lose it all.

But that doesn’t mean we are hopeless and shouldn’t return to campus. We must return to campus, but we have to do it right.

Rather than diving in and risking those needles, the anxiety and litost, all of that can be avoided by dipping a toe in to test the waters and wading into the pool.

By testing the water and gradually acclimating to the new climate, we are at less risk. Will it be pain-free? Absolutely not, but it is so much better than risking a return of those same feelings we encountered at the beginning of the pandemic.

I know how tempting it is to want to run onto campus again, to go to every party on fraternity row. But please remember the dangers of the pool. Hold litost close to your heart in the hopes that you won’t have to feel it again.

For your sake — for all of our sakes — remember that this is a time to wade into the pool.

If you are ever in need of care, please remember that Counseling and Psychological Services, or CAPS, at the Tang Center is an available resource to all UC Berkeley students regardless of insurance status. CAPS can be contacted at 510-642-9494 or after hours at the support line 855-817-5667.

Dylan Miars is a fourth-year undergraduate student and an instructor in the ethnic studies department at UC Berkeley. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.