Surviving the End of the World (and How to Rebuild)

Jackson D. Barber, Phi Beta Kappa Speaker

Friends and classmates: we made it. It was never a sure thing, but we made it. The last four years may have left you heartbroken and weary—I’m certainly exhausted—but I guarantee you we are more resilient, more kind and wise, for having gone through. And by god, we made it.

We didn’t make it unscathed. Sooner or later, this place sweeps away some of the bedrock upon which you built your sense of self, and the temple of your identity tumbles to the ground. You, we, have to rebuild. Williams is a place of destruction and renewal, and none of us are immune. If you’re not sure what I mean, then you’re probably a frosh at first days.

I want to share three small lessons that I have gathered from my personal implosions at Williams: three lessons on how to survive your own apocalypse, be it a failed relationship, mental illness, paralyzing academic stress (all of which I have experienced here) or perhaps even a horde of bloodthirsty zombies (which I thankfully have not.) This is my bootstrap guide to surviving the end of the world (and how to rebuild.)

Survival tip number one: be doggedly positive. Jesse Eisenberg would never have found love in Zombieland had he whiled away the hours moping about the collapse of civilization. We all understand our world and ourselves by telling stories. Find storylines rooted in love of self and others, in agency and auspicious beginnings, and let these narratives drive you. Your life story can only have a happy ending if you believe you are worthy and capable of joy—so choose to believe, doggedly. You have the power to make that choice.

Survival tip number two: you are as vast as the sky. Even if you’re trapped in a concrete bunker for the nuclear winter, or (god forbid) trapped in your carrel working on that ten-pager, you are the heir to an immense emotional space. Your heart can hold a lot. It’s ok to feel stressed, angry, and anguished, because feeling these emotions doesn’t preclude you also feeling the good stuff: joy, peace, and connection. The good and the bad can coexist.

Survival tip number three: lean in. It turns out that you can hide from your troubles, social and emotional, just about as well as you can hide from the undead: you can’t. We’re all experts at pretending we’re doing fine, but let’s cut to the chase: we all hurt, sometimes. The sooner we sit with our pain, the sooner we can face it head on, recognize its limited bounds, and overcome. It’s the hardest and best thing we can do. Whatever your emotional experience, lean into it—at the end of the day, our emotions are among the most powerful resources we possess.

At its heart, this is a speech about vulnerability. It is, I maintain, an elegant paradox of life that resilience through and recovery from hardship emerge when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable. To paraphrase a dear friend, ‘it’s good to be a little squishy.’ That’s what I will leave you with, and that is my call to action: try to be a little squishier. And watch out for zombies.