During midterms week, Firestone Library often feels like my second home. Between preparing for exams, writing papers, and staying on top of normal coursework, this time of year offers few, if any, opportunities to take a breath. Consumed by academic obligation and stress, it is often easy to forget what we miss out on. While taking a quick break from work in the Trustee Reading Room this week, I looked out of the window to see a bustling campus, with seas of backpacks rushing across Firestone Plaza to get to the next destination. In that moment, I realized that, all too often, Princetonians take “the moment,” that is, the everyday experience of being present, for granted.
Princeton students work hard in their academic and extracurricular endeavors, not only because they enjoy them, but also, or, in some cases, rather, because success in such endeavors positions them for professional opportunities. When we stay in the library until 2 a.m. to finish that problem set or to read that scholarly text, we are not doing so simply because we cannot get enough of differential equations or the wisdom of Nietzsche. The future employers and others that we must impress to achieve professional happiness appreciate a strong academic record. In other words, there is a profound thirst for future possibility among Princetonians.
Being excited about what the future holds and positioning oneself to achieve future success is, of course, a good thing. It is only natural and prudent for Princetonians to prepare vigorously for a satisfying professional future. Without being future-oriented, we would be caught off-guard when that future inevitably asserts itself. In fact, Princeton and its peer institutions are essentially designed to provide students with a pathway to enriching future endeavors. In other words, thinking about the future is inherent to Princeton’s institutional structure, and for good reason. In addition, on a practical level, who has time to live in the moment when you must write a ten-page essay, volunteer for three hours, and apply for two internships, all in one day?
However, Princeton students should avoid completely neglecting the moment by taking time every day to appreciate the here and now. Wholly neglecting the moment can lead one to miss opportunities. Making a new friend, having a good laugh, falling in love, absorbing nature, and so many other profoundly beautiful experiences can be easily missed if one always fails to live in the moment. Although preparing for the future is unavoidably central to the Princeton experience, we should not let our time here be solely defined by what we do after we graduate. We should remember that Princeton is our home for four years, which means it is a place where we not only work but also live, and living takes place in the here and now.
Of course, a logical question to my abstract argument is, what does living in the moment look like and how can it make me happier and more productive? Living in the moment means a host of things. For some, it is simply just taking a walk with a friend or going to the gym. For others, it could mean drawing the fall sunset reflecting off the Princeton University Chapel’s stunning architecture. Living in the moment just means taking in sensory information that is only available in the present, or for the moment.
In terms of the second part of the question, living in the moment can help make one happier and more productive as the practice integrates meaning into one’s day. Eventually, a mindset only concerned with the future facilitates cynicism and burnout. The future may hold wonderful opportunities, but the future is not here yet. The future, therefore, should not be directly responsible for making us happy because the potential joys that it holds have yet to materialize. In order to sustain motivation for future success, we must consistently celebrate the simple, everyday opportunities for happiness that are actually present.
All in all, Princeton provides its students with exciting future possibilities: possibilities that warrant hard work, focus, and commitment. But the moment, too, offers incredible possibilities. We should start embracing them.
Samuel Aftel is a sophomore from East Northport, New York. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.