Courtesy Nikhil Patel Nikhil Patel (SFS ’02) delivers a reflection at Professor Joseph Lepgold’s memorial service.

At Georgetown, I finally began to fathom the human capacity for grace.

In my first two years here, I never would have believed it. I had always expected I would learn something at Georgetown, but I surmised early on that my education would be limited to scholarship; for all the talk about college being more than schoolwork, about late-night conversations on life and meaning, deep friendships and lasting emotional connection, the uplifting exuberance of youth, I didn’t find that people had much to offer. I felt assaulted by an experiment in baseness so insistent and insatiate that it could only have been perpetrated by the human beast: the boorishness, the lack of unpretentious curiosity, the mindless and monotonous and unceasing debauchery, the ravaging and manipulation of each other for the most passing and self-centered gratification. All I saw about people every day and every night saddened me.

It’s easy to drown in the baseness of people when you view them as caricatures of real human beings. At Georgetown and other top schools, we all seem pretty two-dimensional. We are mostly affluent (compared to the rest of the world), we enjoy relatively easy lives and are unworried about disease or hunger or displacement or torture – we wouldn’t want otherwise, of course, but what do we know of the pain that can provide a full perspective on life? What do we know of the struggle that trains our spirits to surpass the priorities of immature and untempered drives? All we really develop in our too comfortable lives is an inflated sense of our own importance.

For my first few years at Georgetown, I felt that we were all these caricatures and not fully-fleshed, enduring human beings. Nominally, people might have been conscious of the suffering of others and appreciative of their own good fortune, but this consciousness never seemed to translate into compassion. People veiled their self-absorption in educated words, talking about things like love and ideals and their aspirations for a better future while they repeated the same mundane, self-centered, self-defeating rituals.

Gradually, however, something started to dawn on me. The realization burgeoned over the course of years, but only recently have I begun to understand it: Everyone has endured some struggle; through this universal confrontation of hardship, everyone enjoys – perhaps submerged, or even unconsciously – a kernel of character both noble and sublime. So many of my friends and acquaintances at Georgetown (and elsewhere) have had to endure so much: the trauma of broken homes, the loss of parents or other loved ones (often prematurely and in tragic ways), battles against cancer, undeserved and unyielding desolation and so on – and these are only the extremes. Many people suffer more subtle miseries, for things we dismiss that nonetheless fester over a lifetime: the short, the fat, the meek, the awkward. It is very difficult to put a relative value on pain. Everyone struggles, it doesn’t matter in which country or in which school or in which family or in which way, and somewhere deep in the heart, everyone has the fortitude to face these struggles with courage.

There is a corollary to this: I realized in turn that everyone has the capacity for real human grace. By real human grace, I mean empathy, compassion, sacrifice and most importantly, genuinely living for something beyond oneself. In my opinion, almost all the impulses that shackle human beings to savagery relate in some way to a single flaw: fundamental self-centeredness. This is not simply to say that we are selfish and egoistic; more than that, we often view ourselves as the heroes of all history and time, and view everyone else as the extras. We tend to think in terms of ourselves, and this often keeps us from the mutual laying-bare of souls and the sacrifices required for meaningful human connection. During my time at Georgetown, however, I realized that we all have the potential to give of ourselves – purely, sincerely and without machination – for the sake of others.

At least one personal experience can illustrate this point. This year, I lost a dear friend and teacher, Professor Joseph Lepgold. In any such extreme situations, you would expect people to pay their condolences in a kind and solemn way; though certainly important, there’s nothing special in it. What amazed me, however, was just how earnest their compassion actually was. Professor Lepgold’s students, colleagues, friends, as well as many random people who merely heard of his passing, seemed genuinely moved. Usually, their consoling was spontaneous and sincere; the compassion in their voices was real, a compassion beyond words, beyond deed, belonging to the old connections of the human heart. It warmed me to know that people had the capacity to care, to go out of their way to care, even when they had no stake in the caring.

What I treat as a personal revelation – that all people suffer, that they can be noble, transcendent – may seem like old news to some. Nevertheless, I think it’s one thing to have considered or casually acknowledged this quality of human life; it’s quite another to positively believe in it.

This is not to say that, after some rousing epiphany, I now suddenly think everyone is peachy keen. People still build towers of pretense within which they can quarantine their virtues and the vulnerabilities that make them real. I still find it hard to look past their disingenuous personas. I still loathe the playacting, so well rehearsed over the years that they have convinced even themselves. But what I have now is hope, a faith in humanity’s ultimate triumph that will sustain me through my own days of desolation.

Was Georgetown the specific springboard for this ongoing maturation of perspective? I’m not sure. Maybe it has something to do with the students Georgetown attracts. We tend to be dichotomous: both pre-professional and intellectually curious, both self-absorbed and generous, both clownish and contemplative of the essential questions of life. In any case, my time at Georgetown has helped me not only to truly sympathize with others amid all our human baseness, but also to appreciate more fully humankind’s capacity for the loftiest virtue even in everyday life. I can only be grateful.

Nikhil Patel is a senior in the School of Foreign Service.

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