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YOLO Revisited

Becoming Religious at Harvard

By Spencer W. Glassman, Crimson Opinion Writer
Spencer W. Glassman ’23-’24, a Crimson Editorial Editor, is a History concentrator in Leverett House. His column, “Becoming Religious at Harvard,” runs on alternating Wednesdays.

I am always overwhelmed at diners. Brunch is simply confusing. It’s marketed as one meal, but really, we are asked whether we would like breakfast or lunch. I am generally partial toward the latter, but an enticing picture of pancakes or an omelet can persuade me in the other direction. While it is unjust to make anyone pick between the sandwich and soup combo and French toast, the fact of such an overwhelming array of options imbues one’s decision with an air of importance.

Hopefully, Harvard students feel similarly when looking through the course catalog. With the immense amount of human knowledge available on the shelves of Widener, and typically only 32 courses for the most intelligent people on the planet to explain the contents to us, we must all struggle in choosing whether to familiarize ourselves with the greatest works of the opera or the operations of the Cosmos. When we select a class, we sacrifice at least 10 other classes we could’ve taken that we will never take. An Economics concentrator would call this an opportunity cost. Initially, that missed opportunity propels us to take full advantage of the courses in which we enroll.

But during this choosing process, we become complacent. We desire to get good grades and have free time, so that the General Education course with a reading list of books we wanted to finish before graduation might not be given due attention. Even when we are motivated enough, by virtue of the opportunity cost, to savor the meal we picked or the class we took, that attitude does not extend to how we use our unassigned hours.

The beginning of the summer promises no end. The sun will always be up at eight o’clock, and it seems the weather will never grow cold. After closing our final examination blue book, it feels as though we will never have to open one again. Unlike during the academic year, in which we must prioritize certain activities, there is no sacrifice to be made — we have ample time for everything. So, what is the harm in conking out, cracking open the laptop, and watching an episode — or maybe a season, or a whole series — on Netflix?

I am quite familiar with this lackadaisical urge. (I should qualify that relaxation is not necessarily bad, we must give ourselves breaks to empower ourselves for other things, and leisure of the Aristotelian variety is certainly no problem.) Yet there is one philosophical concept popularized on the internet in 2012 which frequently corrects my errors: You Only Live Once (YOLO).

Advocates of YOLO contend that we should value our time because we can’t gain more of it. The concept itself is excellent, but its execution leaves much to be desired. Youths in 2012 used YOLO as an excuse for carelessness as opposed to an imperative for consideration and deliberation. Perhaps a better model for YOLO is not the 21st-century variety, but rather one based on severe concern for each moment of time — something that is, at its core, a deeply Jewish idea.

As Jews, we believe each moment can be made holy through following Halacha, or Jewish law, and fulfilling mitzvot, or commandments. When I began to observe these rules more strictly, I was overwhelmed and scared by how much was demanded of my time. Each moment was to be important, and contained in it an opportunity to do something of monumental significance. How could I live up to that?

The first change I made in my life toward adopting Jewish practice was saying “Modeh Ani” — “I offer thanks” — in the morning at the moment I woke up. This demonstrated to me that each time I woke up it was with a purpose — that God specifically chose for me to wake up so I could do something good that day. As my practice developed, this notion only became more salient, and it began to reflect not just in the religious rituals I performed, but in every aspect of my life.

I started developing an inner dialogue when I’d commence an activity: “Is this thing worthwhile? You could be visiting the sick, learning Torah, or helping another with his load.” I could respond to myself in several ways: “No, it’s not,” “Well, it is essential that I do this so that I can do those things later on,” “It is, because it increases my empathy and love of fellow people.” Unfortunately, this dialogue is not omnipresent in my consciousness; it has just begun its growth. Nevertheless, it has assured me that we all have a radical ability to always improve ourselves and the world, so whenever we commit ourselves to something, we must ask why it is valuable and if we are seriously dedicated to gleaning what it has to offer.

Prioritizing each moment is not a call to spend all of one’s time laboring or being “economically productive” — that is far from the Jewish ideal which upholds the importance of the Sabbath. Rather, this should be interpreted as an urge to value each moment and dedicate them accordingly, whether through bonding with friends, studying the great thinkers of the past, or planting a garden. We even contribute to our improvement when we avoid doing things like stealing, speaking poorly of someone else, or cheating on a test. Without being overly prescriptive or proscriptive, it is still possible and necessary to determine how our time is spent.

Spencer W. Glassman ’23-’24, a Crimson Editorial Editor, is a History concentrator in Leverett House. His column, “Becoming Religious at Harvard,” runs on alternating Wednesdays.

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