Mercury’s in Retrograde (No, Really)

Good news! If you have — given up trying to explain mechanism design to your problem set group while studying for midterms, argued with your significant other about the disproportionately low effort you feel they’re putting into the relationship, or trekked all the way to the Quad to meet a friend just to get a text saying the evening van just dropped them off at Eliot courtyard and they can’t wait to see you — lately, it’s not your fault. Mercury’s in retrograde.

You’ve probably heard someone offer these three undecipherable words as an explanation for anything that’s gone wrong in the last month. So what do they mean?

In astrology, Mercury is the planet of the mind. It rules thought and communication; it dictates how you learn and process information and how you spit that information back out to other people. It’s an everyday kind of planet, constantly moving in a tight circle around the Sun of you.

Mercury’s domain is amplified by college. As we go to classes and extracurricular activities and even the dining hall, we are always learning and growing from that newfound knowledge. We rub shoulders with so many fascinating people at Harvard: peers who have gone to the Olympics or won international science competitions, professors who wrote the book on the topic they teach, graduate students who are always juggling a million cooler things — research and dissertations and invitation-only conferences — and yet still make the time to mentor us. There’s a reason Mercury is the patron of schooling and education. We exercise our Mercuries day-in-day-out here, in casual conversations over brunch, debates in section, and deliverables for student organizations.

But quick, nimble Mercury is also a troublemaker, and three times a year, the planet appears to screech to a halt and start backpedalling across the sky. Of course, physics will tell you this is only an optical illusion from our vantage point on Earth: Mercury isn’t actually moving backwards. But it has this apparent retrograde — retrograde coming from the Latin “retro-,” meaning backwards, and “gradi,” meaning step — motion to us, and so we astrologers say Mercury is in retrograde.


When Mercury’s in retrograde, life is full of confusion, frustration, miscommunication, and blunders — even more so than usual. You make a point in section and there’s pin-drop silence as no one picks up what you put down. You accidentally reveal a secret you shouldn’t have. You sleep through lecture and email your mom instead of your professor about attending office hours. You screw up everything that you can screw up, and everything falls apart.

It’s easy to feel terribly small and alone during Mercury retrograde, like no one else understands what’s going on in our heads. Especially at Harvard, where many people’s first line of defence is a sharply polished intellect, these times where our minds are frazzled and words don’t come out right are unsettling. We’ve always prided ourselves on being able to verbalize and explain, to pinpoint the problem so we can adjust and catch up, and now this fundamental part of ourselves is scrambled just like Mercury’s apparent path in space.

But even as Mercury rebels, as mistakes quadruple and thoughts take a tumble, we are all trying our best. Learning is hard. Communicating is hard. Neither of these acts happens alone; they are two-way streets, with two people on opposite ends trying their hardest to understand each other and branch the chasm between them. When anything under the domain of Mercury — be it conveying one’s own thoughts or approaching others — fails, it’s not just one person’s fault. You can’t control how other people will interpret your words. You can only try your best to match those words to what’s happening in your mind, and trust that the other person is doing the same for you.

You won’t always feel like everyday life’s a mess. I lied (sorry!) when I said Mercury’s in retrograde, and that’s why nothing’s working out right now — Mercury retrograde ended a week ago. This year, Mercury was in retrograde from January 30 to February 20, May 29 to June 22, and September 27 to October 17. Mercury in retrograde comes and goes. The planet moves backwards for a bit, and then it stops and starts zooming on forwards again. Like Mercury itself orbiting, the periods of retrograde, of self-doubt and blunders and “everything that can go wrong is going wrong,” always pass eventually.

Maybe it’s midterms season or Mercury in retrograde that makes everything feel bad right now. But it will pass. It always passes. Mercury will reroute, and everything will be okay again.

Christina M. Xiao ’24, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Eliot House. Their column appears on alternate Mondays.