The future, Part I

I’m a senior in college. Many of you will be at some point and more of you have been already. This is the year that decides the rest of your life, or so at least many of my classmates seem to think. Realistically, with the average American changing careers 6-7 times during the course of their adulthood, whatever my peers and I end up doing next year is not necessarily make-or-break. 

Even with this in the back of my mind, however, I got swept up at the beginning of this year in ‘e-recruiting’, also occasionally, affectionately known as selling one’s soul. E-recruiting is the name given to the process wherein hundreds of Harvard students are wooed by firms that intend to offer one or two spots (maybe) to students, who go on to fame and fortune – really just the latter – in the world of finance or consulting. I half-heartedly applied to some firms and then started looking into grad school and fellowships.  

It’s been kind of fun. I recently turned in an application to follow the steps of thousands of pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago, the pilgrimage route across France and northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela; ostensibly to study the motivation and religious convictions of modern-day pilgrims while cleverly incorporating the knowledge gained from my medieval history courses and language study here at Harvard.

And then a few weeks ago I went to morning prayers, a fifteen minute service held at 8:45 every morning in Memorial Church. Other than a hymn and a closing prayer, it’s not much of a religious affair. The centerpiece is always a speaker, unreliably Christian, who gives a short homily about work, life, baseball, whatever.

I always mean to come more often, but I suffer the delusion that I will get something incredibly important done during the same time period (usually sleep).  Anyway. The talk of the morning was about being mindful of the world’s poor: about how a mosquito net which can save a human from malaria costs less than two coffees, if we would only take the time to send the money in the right direction. 

These are logical points, and they are ignored on a regular basis. In the midst of e-recruiting and fellowship-applying, it was easy to forget how using Harvard’s money to fund a joy-trek across northern Spain might not be the best way to ‘give back’.

Of course there are different ways of doing our best for the world. I’m not condemning the idea of looking for spiritual fulfillment or suggesting that every college senior should do Teach for America in Mississippi or build canals in the African desert. People have different strengths, and the way to best serve the greater good of humanity – or God, if you like – is going to be different for every individual. Maybe, on said trek across northern Spain, I’d gain cultural insight and language proficiency that would allow me to make better informed decisions in a future job in the US foreign service. 

It’s easy for those of us who are studying: we can glorify the stuff we do every day as contributing to our future usefulness.  And those of you who teach are surely helping us. And those who work to make this University community such a good place for fostering intellectual and personal growth are likewise performing a valuable service. 

I could go on. Anyone who does any small thing to make the world go round is serving the greater good. A father who drives his kids to school is taking time to raise his children well, which is for the greater good. The dining staff who check our IDs at the entrance of the dining hall to make sure each hall is allotted the right amount of money – is serving the greater good. 

The difference is in the degree. Maybe that father could be better serving the world by having his kids ride the bus, saving the gas money, going to work earlier and coming home earlier to spend time with his kids in the afternoon. Maybe that dining hall ID checker could be inspiring freshmen to be a better person like Domna over in Annenberg. Maybe I could spend next year challenging myself by teaching in rural Mississippi. Maybe each of us could have two fewer coffees and buy a mosquito net. 

Simply put, it’s not enough to be doing well if we have the ability to be doing better.  It’s not enough for ourselves, it’s not enough for humanity.

I have no wish to discuss my own religious beliefs or lack thereof on the internets, but Sir Francis Drake wrote a poem in 1577 that I’ve always found moving:
Disturb us, Lord, when
We are too well pleased with ourselves,
When our dreams have come true

Because we have dreamed too little,
When we arrived safely
Because we sailed too close to the shore.

Disturb us, Lord, when 
With the abundance of things we possess
We have lost our thirst
For the waters of life;
Having fallen in love with life,
We have ceased to dream of eternity
And in our efforts to build a new earth,
We have allowed our vision
Of the new Heaven to dim.

Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly,
To venture on wider seas
Where storms will show your mastery;
Where losing sight of land,
We shall find the stars.
We ask You to push back
The horizons of our hopes;
And to push into the future
In strength, courage, hope, and love.

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