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Spoiler Alert: Harvard Was Very, Very Hard
Elle Woods may have deceived me, but I'm graduating anyway.
There’s that iconic scene in Legally Blonde when Elle Woods’ ex-boyfriend expresses doubt that she got accepted to Harvard Law. Elle simply looks at him, furrows her brow adorably, and asks, “What, like it’s hard?”
In about three weeks, I graduate from a masters program at Harvard and, let me tell you: Elle Woods deceived me. This wasn’t the first time in my life that a beautiful blonde woman in pink clothes led me to disaster (I used to get beat up by my brothers for playing with Barbie), but this time, the stakes were a lot higher. After watching Legally Blonde and the entirety of Gilmore Girls—two masterpieces in which Harvard looms large—I decided “it would be fun” to apply to Harvard Divinity School. With a dash of Elle Woods’ optimism, I asked a few colleagues for recommendation letters, wrote a very fun essay, called my astrologer to tell me the exact time of day to press “submit,” and sent in my application. When I was accepted a few months later, I was elated. I couldn’t believe it: Harvard!
Sadly, what came next was—well, very hard. I’m not even talking about the schoolwork (although, it would be great if we, like Elle, could montage our way through all the studying and emerge with a diploma). As Divinity School students, we weren’t just being asked to engage with the study of religion. We were also wrestling with commonly held assumptions about our culture, being forced to confront some of the ugliest atrocities in world history, and then being challenged to articulate why anyone would still choose faith. By the end of the first semester, I was so exhausted that I finally asked one of my professors why any of these complicated theories and texts actually mattered. In this time of absolute global crisis, why are we spending so much time thinking instead of just doing?
“These texts doesn’t always have the answers about what exactly to do, which can be frustrating,” she answered. “But some of it will resonate with you. It will teach you about how to see this world differently and then, hopefully, see yourself and your place in this world differently. It gives you an entirely different posture.”
I read a lot in the past nine or so months, but it wasn’t until at least halfway through the journey that I began to understand her message. Believe it or not, the reading itself isn’t the hard part (even if it was sometimes 600-800 pages in a week). The harder part was the thinking—doing nothing but letting all of these big ideas swirl around in your head like a garbage cyclone until it finally starts to fall, neatly, into the parts of your brain and heart where it begins to make sense. Being in the cyclone was the great gift of this year. I was able to step off the hamster wheel of work and have some time and space alone to process. This is a massive privilege, especially considering our ongoing student loan controversies and the ways we’ve all been conditioned to participate in a relentless media cycle. You’d think it would feel kind of nice, but the truth is that most of the time, it really didn’t.
I didn’t expect that engaging with obscure theological concepts would animate so much for me about my personal life. As you might know, a lot of my choosing Divinity School had to do with being raised and educated under Catholicism—and thus, trying to understand my homosexuality in the context of sin, atonement, and punishment. Suddenly, I was being confronted with classmates, professors, and texts that showed an entirely different version of Catholicism than the one I was used to. I found monks who wrote in their journals about yearning for the kiss of Jesus’ mouth, a saint who used her visions of Jesus to escape persecution by the Spanish Empire, and clergy members who banded together during the AIDS Crisis to defy the orders of the Church by providing loving care to the queer people who were dying en masse. I was pushed to defy absolutism, to reject black-and-white binaries, and to rise to the challenge of speaking with vulnerability in order to demand accountability. My classmates and I, trying to piece it all together, sometimes fought relentlessly—and then were forced to sit back down together a week later and do it all over again. It was often uncomfortable, always inconvenient, and rarely enjoyable. And, for Elle Woods’ information, it was hard—very hard. And I’m so glad I did it.
I couldn’t see it during the process, but I’m starting to understand now that this gnawing, agonizing frustration can be what healing feels like. When I first arrived at Harvard, I declared that I was here to “give God back to myself.” Engaging with faith in this way helped me finally begin to see where I belong. I saw myself again as the young boy on his knees beside his bed, crying tears into his pillow, begging God to be anything but who he was. I no longer wish I could go back and lash out at anything and anyone who made that little boy feel that way. He didn’t know what I know now: that feeling outcast and alone as a young person would give him the gift of seeing the world for what it is. He also didn’t know that his desire to change any of it, for himself or anyone else, was faith. And whatever love he felt removed from then, he would receive a thousandfold. The more spiritually inclined among us might say that I never needed to give God back to myself—that God was right there the whole time.
I hope you understand now why I initially thought I could write this newsletter during my studies at Harvard. (I was wearing Elle Woods goggles!) So many people are able to model their learning live and in action, but I really needed this time to absorb before I started talking in public. Now that it’s almost over, I thought it would be appropriate and overdue to bring back this newsletter as a part of my final project.
You’ll be hearing from me over the next couple of weeks and leading up to May 12th, where I’ll chat with my lovely friend Cleo Wade on Instagram Live about some of the key themes from my time in the Masters of Religion and Public Life program. Here, I’ll be publishing an excerpt from my recently submitted thesis, as well as a few tidbits about things I found fascinating during my time at Harvard.
I hope you enjoy this two-week stint with me. As for what happens after that, I haven’t decided. I appreciate you reading regardless. And I’ll see you in your inbox again in the morning, where I’ll be talking about my Met Gala experience during the “Heavenly Bodies” exhibit. It’s appropriate because tomorrow, I’ll be joining the team on E! to comment on all the red carpet arrivals during this year’s Met Gala. (We love a full circle moment.)
In the meantime, please enjoy this, the Lord’s Day. Stay blessed.