What we can do here and now

May 3, 2019

My advice to Brandeis students: Eschew transience by engaging with your community. In other words, live in the here and now.

It’s something I’ve struggled with for most of my life, trying to stay firmly rooted in the present.

For most of my life, I’ve anxiously lived in the future—that uncertain, immaterial head space that distracts from the present.

The hardest lesson I’ve learned—and continue to struggle with—is living in the present. There are things we can do, people we can affect, today. Instead of thinking on the grand-scale, we have to accept where we are and do all we can to change the world on the local level.

I think a lot about Edwin Dobb’s essay in last October’s issue of “Harper’s Magazine. In “Nothing but Gifts,” Dobb looks back at his life, when he lived in near-poverty in Seattle while trying to take care of his stepson as a single parent. His ultimate takeaway is an adoption metaphor. “Adopting the world as it is alleviates estrangement, a malaise so widespread it might be a human birthright,” he says.

As students, we’re not here permanently. Our lives here at Brandeis have a built-in expiration date that’s always looming. Adopting an impermanent world is, at least for me, a struggle. It’s easier to watch the days go by while looking ahead instead of what’s around.  

For most of my time at Brandeis, I failed to live in the here and now. Instead of investing in my community, I counted down the days to when I’d get to leave.

Sure there are problems here—I’m convinced the administration hates us, and we all know that Sodexo does. But the student culture here doesn’t have to be one of these problems.  

“The imagination, especially the anguished imagination, will always be susceptible to the allure of the idealized elsewhere. But the ideal elsewhere is uninhabitable, an ever-receding mirage,” Dobb writes in his essay.

When I think about wasted resources, I think about all the time and energy that students have—students that are living transient lives like I was, disconnected and disassociated from their communities, waiting to leave so they can get on with their lives.  

Life doesn’t magically begin when we graduate. We students here in Waltham have the opportunity to shape the tremendous impact we have on this city in a positive or negative way.

It’s good that a school focused on social justice is planted here. There’s plenty we can do in a city where 24 percent of people are immigrants, and there’s a nearly 10 percent poverty rate.   

I’d like to commend the Waltham Group, which I wish I’d joined, for doing just that. Giving back to the community isn’t glamorous or world-changing, but it is effective and meaningful.

The world is fundamentally broken—that fact, and our seeming inability to do anything about it, makes me at least want to shut down and give in to despair. I’ve become increasingly skeptical about attempts to make top-down changes to these issues. From this mindset, I think it’s easy to become overwhelmed by senseless politics, our impending ecological disaster, the vast, growing inequalities and others. Instead, I think we should approach these issues from the bottom, at the local level.

The reality is that we can change the world, starting in our own communities with the people and systems we participate in every day. Rather than being rendered complacent and inert by our inability to change the big things, we have to look at the community-level impacts we can create where we live.

This, at its core, means acting relationally and sympathetically to those we cross paths with. For example, the people that make our meals and clean our buildings here—many of whom are immigrants—could be better served by those who like to tweet about social inequalities but are waiting until after they graduate to change the world.

Living in the here and now means being intentional, being aware of where we are and who we interact with, and how our interactions can affect them.

It’s hard not to feel transient at this stage in life. Living sort-of at home but also here, it’s easy to not engage in other people or places. To float through them, waiting for the next life cycle to start. But we shouldn’t be waiting for life to begin: It’s happening, right now. We need to adopt the world as it is.

Live gratefully and graciously. The fitting response to a world gone awry, Dobb writes, “isn’t to indulge in or promote fear, which leads to more greed and isolation, but instead to encourage engagement, especially engagement that sustains the ecology of indebtedness, in other words, the old-school strategies known as compassion and community.” I encourage my fellow students to invest in the here and now.

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