I recently saw a woman sitting on a stone bench staring at a small tree. As I walked by, she looked up through red eyes, and though it was clear she had been crying, I didn’t stop. Rather, I flashed a forced, pursed-lip acknowledgement that she was saddened and kept up my brisk pace. I was busy.
I had never noticed that tree before, so when I stopped to look at it a few weeks later, it surprised me that it was planted in memoriam of a Yale student who passed away a few decades ago — a bomb blast in Israel that took out nearly an entire bus of civilians. It’s my best guess that the woman on the bench was kin to the dead young man whom the plaque and the foliage commemorated.
Needless to say, it’s somewhat distressing to toy with the idea that one’s future might take the form of a tree planted in one’s memory. A wooden bench built, a hall constructed, a shrub or a rose bush planted not for any purpose other than to remind the living that someone walked on this planet but no longer finds him or herself here today. These individuals’ great lives, we all agree, were stolen. We can speculate about what he or she might have achieved, but these speculations will never materialize.
Professors and mentors and deans throw around phrases like, “You will be the leaders of tomorrow,” from the minute that we walk onto this campus. However, these prophecies are built on a presupposition that we will be here tomorrow. While this is statistically likely, it is not an absolute truth. You or I may die tomorrow, whether it be by a bomb blast or meningitis or some other unforeseen circumstance. We are promised nothing.
The problem is not that we might die tomorrow and be robbed of our futures. In all probability, we will still be here and held accountable for the work we so desperately want to avoid. The problem is that we rob ourselves of the present every day.
The potential and promise of future success (and the pressure to achieve that success) is enough to compel us to deny ourselves the activities and people that make our time more worthwhile. The books that we would love to read, the movies that we would love to see, the friends that we would love to hang out with — all of them seem to fall by the wayside or at least take a back seat to what is possible but certainly not promised. We can enjoy these things in due time, we tell ourselves.
What is it about prospective success or comfort that makes us neglect the pleasures of the present? It is difficult to say, but it probably stems from a desire for future happiness, which at least on this campus seems to correlate with a high income. Many a man and woman have pushed aside what makes them happy or postponed a dream on the gamble that money and time will be available to pursue them in the years to come. It is cliché to drop the “people on their deathbeds don’t wish for more money” line, but it is probably true, assuming that one makes it to a deathbed sixty years down the road.
It’s hard to put down our work and pursue something completely unrelated to our future aspirations but that nevertheless makes us happy. It’s even harder to do so in an environment where it seems that every minute we take away from working comes at a price, that our peers are busy achieving while we pursue happiness. But the opportunity cost of enjoying something that we know we have now is much smaller than we might think. Neither your future nor your success is guaranteed, so depriving yourself of simple pleasures, especially in college, is certainly no way to live.
What book have you denied yourself lately? Whom have you postponed in your life because you are simply “too busy?” What event did you not go to because you wanted to get ahead on work? There is a reason that so many rose bushes are used as memorials — they remind us to stop and smell them while we have the chance.
Kyle Tramonte is a senior in Saybrook College. His columns run on Thursdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.