Student life is inherently oriented toward the future. We prepare for classes that prepare us for more classes that prepare us for careers. With so much anticipation for what is to come, it can be easy to neglect what is already here.
I write to caution against dismissing the present as less significant than the future, especially now, as COVID-19 disrupts many of our plans. There is still no way to say with any certainty just how long the pandemic will last, and if we regard the current time as a hiatus from reality, we may miss out on months, perhaps even years, of our lives.
What are our lives after all, but the sum of every passing day and the integral of every passing moment? As writer Annie Dillard puts it, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
This is not to say our lives are wasted if we are not productive at all times. Most of us cannot do all the things we used to do before the pandemic, and some of us may find it impossible to function anywhere near normal capacity right now. But even unproductive times can be valuable.
Value lies in more than utility; there is value in beauty as well. We don’t value our loved ones because they are useful to us, we value them because we find them intrinsically beautiful. In the same way, we can cherish our present days, not for productivity’s sake, but for the beauty they contain.
There is value in the savoring of small pleasures and in defiant acts of thankfulness. Not everything is worth being thankful for, but I believe there is something to be thankful for in everything. By attending to the good things we have now, we can redefine a part of our lives that may otherwise be characterized solely by loss or disappointment.
Video calls wear me out faster than in-person meetings, but I am grateful to modern technology for allowing me to see the faces of my friends and family far away. I am grateful to my financial aid sponsors for making it possible for me to attend Yale again this semester. I am grateful to everyone who has acted in kindness and solidarity in the face of 2020’s many adversities. This year may be more challenging than usual, but it still has its opportunities for joy and meaning.
Jewish psychiatrist and neurologist Victor Frankl was a therapist in the Nazi concentration camps of World War II. Although he witnessed and suffered countless cruelties, he found meaning and helped others find meaning during one of the darkest times in human history.
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances,” he wrote.
I want to make it clear that I am not equating the hardships of the pandemic with the atrocities of the Holocaust. But I do believe Frankl’s outlook is useful in considering how we might approach difficult times in our own lives. Our mindsets shape our daily habits and dictate the tone of our memories. If we think of this year as a throwaway year, then indeed, we will have thrown away a year. But if we appreciate all it has to offer, it may become just as precious and vibrant to us as any other year in our lives.
Our lives do not begin after we graduate from Yale, or after we get our dream job. They do not begin after we retire, or after COVID-19 ends. Our lives have already begun — so let us live.
VERA VILLANUEVA is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.