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Technology, Mental Health, and the Art of Listening

My worst moment at Stanford came last year when, in a fit of insomnia and stress, I lashed out at the most humanistic person that I know. “Why do you stay up so late and talk to people?” I snapped. “You just make your life worse. Go to bed.”

Of course I have been significantly more depressed than I was that night. Yet in retrospect, that malicious outburst was the nadir. It reflected the worst effect that undergraduate culture here can have upon us. We become frantic Formicidae, unable ever to stop.

In contrast, my best moment here occurred during my sophomore year. Spooning lunch onto my plate, I had a sudden inspiration: “I’m not going to say a single word during this entire meal.” For the next hour, all that I did was observe my housemates. I watched the twitch of my friend’s mouth when she spoke about her boyfriend. Disarray and dirtiness of clothing mirrored, on another friend, how harrowed his face was. In short, I was attuned to the not-so-subtle subtle signs that absolutely scream how a person is really “doing.” Most of the time, it’s not simply “fine.”

My housemate forgave me for my late-night transgression, but only now can I tell her that I’ve learned my lesson. What that splendid young woman remembered and what I forgot that evening was that conversations cannot be multitasked. You must listen as well as you hear (see Mike + the Mechanics, “Living Years,” 1989). Analogously, you must converse as well as you chat. You cannot cultivate meaningful relationships with people if you resent the time that it takes to form them and consequently only stop for a chat.

Profundity is not efficient. You cannot code it. It can only be found by exhausting substantial amounts of your time diving in search of it. Deep conversation suffers, especially at a university that worships technological productivity, from Baumol’s cost disease. Conversations take at least two people and a lot of time, as they have for millennia. Dedicating more computing power or anything else does nothing to get the job done faster.

I’ve taken to shutting off my phone when I converse. That addict’s itch to clutch at the touch-screen as soon as it vibrates is my greatest pet peeve. I broke up with somebody years back because she couldn’t kick the habit. Emails, Facebook notifications, the ubiquitous text message – each is like a hammer stroke from the neighbor next door who, for some incomprehensible reason, is renovating his deck at six in the morning. If you heed these calls, you are unequivocally demonstrating that they are more important than the person before you.

I’m convinced that the greatest failing of Stanford undergraduates is simultaneously overestimating and underestimating the time that we have left on Earth. When underestimating, we often choose selfish hedonism or the frantic pursuit of academic knowledge. Overestimating, we neglect human relationships and again frantically pursue knowledge.

And at times, burying yourself in a book is perfectly justified. Students here are literally curing cancer, finding ways to mitigate environmental disasters or designing bridges that won’t fall down in an earthquake. Yet just as those worthy pursuits take discipline and sacrifice, so does forging human connections. You can’t estimate the grains left in your life’s hourglass, but we must decide to dedicate more of them to other people. Since we aren’t selfless often enough, many of us are increasingly mentally ill.

For a more thorough discussion of mental health at Stanford, please see the four-part series written by Kristian Davis Bailey. While well-composed, I think that this collection misses the mark. These articles still labor under the epistemology of an institution that is fundamentally stressful and that actively encourages self-absorption. They ask: how can University and community resources keep you healthy enough to literally survive here?

Stop looking to the institution to provide you this answer. Certain psychological treatment can and should only be provided by trained professionals, and this is where the University is and must be held accountable. Altogether too often, though, we sacrifice our own agency under the false impression that there is nothing we can do. There is something you can do. Stop.

Bother to find out what is really going on in the life of a human being to whom you have even the vaguest connection. They won’t tell you if you ask directly. They probably won’t reveal their vulnerabilities upon first inquiry. It takes time, something we all believe that we don’t have. That false assumption knells in the stillness of the night and resonates in the first floor of Meyer. Stanford’s next architectural alteration should be to demolish the clock tower.

Here’s my challenge for the week: don’t say a word during one conversation. Listen. Observe, carefully. Ze’s not fine, really. He’s probably sadder than you think. She would love to just talk to somebody.

If we start stopping time for one another, on a regular basis, we might stop time from running out for a few of our classmates every year.

For more information on breaking the stigma around mental health at Stanford, and to see upcoming events, please also see the website of Stanford Peace of Mind at:; Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), at:; and the Bridge Peer Counseling Center, at: And contact Taylor at [email protected].

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