The other day in my Anatomy and Physiology lecture, our professor was explaining to us how the body has evolved mechanisms to respond to a deficit in energy supply due to conditions such as starvation—namely, we have evolved the miraculous mechanism of fat storage. We have not, however, evolved a means of dealing with excess caloric intake. As I reflected on that concept, I realized that in so many ways the Harvard experience is all about excess, and the four years we have here are spent navigating through it. Of course, I must admit that the sheer abundance of resources is in many ways a blessing, but it can equally prove to be a burden.
Walking past the three Starbucks of Harvard Square, another three destinations for frozen yogurt, a multitude of libraries, frenetic bursts of construction surrounding the Harvard Houses, and the variable number of red bean bags lounging in the Science Center Plaza, I can’t help but feel excess in the very routes that I walk. It is a theme that I hope to explore in a broader research project investigating the latitude of the fragmented healthcare system in the impoverished state of Chiapas, Mexico later this spring. As I walk through the Plaza and one bean bag melds with a giant chess board and a too-large-to-be-inconspicuous foosball table lying at the side of the Science Center, thoughts about excess are very much on my mind. I wonder: how can we gain access to the resources we really need amidst such abundance? How much is too much and when does it cause our senses to be so inundated that we become numb to what we really need? You could apply these same questions to the fragmented healthcare systems that exist both in poor, rural communities in developing countries and also right here in Cambridge. When the system is over saturated with a multitude of providers, insurance companies, and avenues towards care, how is a patient to choose the right one? Even in resource-poor areas, such as Chiapas, the choice between a traditional healer, a social service year physician who works with a local NGO, and a government hospital can prove daunting to an individual who is seeking care. The system starts to require a roadmap for use rather than being a roadmap itself. What results is a disgruntled and mistreated patient who suffers from an inability to manage the system for the sheet enormity of it. How ironic it is that the biggest challenge brought by excess is the issue of gaining access.
Of course, though, excess is not a “problem” that we are accustomed to discussing. In a field like global health, the lingua franca is the verbiage of shortage—be it with regard to supplies, healthcare facilities, transport vehicles, or medical practitioners. How can we change, or at least adjust, the prevalent discourse to account for the problems that excess can pose? Whether it be in the form of eager new medical residents, policymakers ready to wave their pens and radiate waves of change around them, or thought leaders who have many ideas about the way things should be done, there are so many points at which excess plagues our system—perhaps even more than scarcity can.
What is most troubling, though, is the tendency of excess itself to become entangled in a self-perpetuating cycle that we can become accustomed to all too quickly. To address this, we might do well to identify the moment at which what was once excess becomes merely adequate, to the point that we suddenly begin clamoring for even more.
And this brings me back to Harvard.
For me, the fall has always been the season that is most generous with lending its beauty to the routes I walk. And I’m so grateful for it. The season lightly taps the trees that fill the parks and House courtyards, almost as if giving its permission for them to let their leaves loose and release the bounty of marigold and red that has been yearning to be set free. Their descent is the signal of the end of the season of excess, and the harbinger of the winter months that warn of scarcity. Of course, the change of the seasons and its effects are far more poetic in my mind than would be represented on a Keeling Curve in my Evolutionary biology class, for example. The point, though, is the same. Excess, too, has its seasons. In the winter months, there is less vegetation eagerly photosynthesizing and spouting out oxygen. Thus, carbon dioxide levels rise. With the onset of summer, the opposite effect will take place. In some ways, it is a subtle shift, but the variation is there nonetheless. It is there when I read that Harvard, our veritable bastion of financial stability, is experiencing a budget deficit in the current season. It is there too when I hear my Professor lecture about the increasing rates of caloric intake among humans and its effects on our metabolic machinery. Perhaps we are in an evolutionary era of excess as a species.
In many ways, navigating excess is the perennial challenge in a world that is still in want of so much. To access the resources that we really need, we must first make our way through the clutter. In my mind, just understanding this is the first hurdle.
As for me, I will continue to navigate Harvard in my own way during these weeks of change—not just of the seasonal kind but too in a world where biochemical weapons are grabbing news headlines and national leaders weren’t able to prevent the United States government from shutting down. My worries seem minuscule in comparison to the ones that result from excesses of the hegemonic and prideful kind. Still though, as I put one foot in front of the other, I can’t help but wish that navigating the excesses of the real world was this beautiful.