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One of the silliest memories I have of my younger brother is him walking in the field below our house on the day before his birthday. He excitedly exclaimed, “I cannot wait for Christmas!” My father and I broke out laughing, “Lowell! Your birthday is tomorrow, why don’t we enjoy that first?” My brother’s response was not one of greed, but rather of excitement for the build up to the holiday. In other words, he was ready to be ready for Christmas.
In this regard, my brother and I share a similar trait. I, too, have been guilty of waiting to wait, such as looking forward to graduate school applications after just getting into college. My impression of Harvard students at large is of fulfilling philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre’s description of the essence of humanity. In Being and Nothingness, he says, “… it is necessary to consider our life as being made up not only of waitings but of waitings which themselves wait for waitings.”
It is worth considering how applicable Sartre’s necessity is to our own lives. We wait to wait for our friend tomorrow. We wait to go home for break so that we can wait to go back to school. We wait to apply for a job which we will use to wait to go to business school where we will wait to start working. Herein lies the source of many people’s unhappiness.
The apothegm of living in the present is doled out to the point of asininity. There is certainly truth to it, however, that truth is obscured by its overprescription. By the time you have managed to consciously focus on the present, the moment is lost, and you have failed. This could be due to the moment. It could be due to you. One soon finds, the best moments are ones in which there is no waiting; no having to focus. The time flies. You look down at the time and are startled. It's already dark; the evening is almost over.
One of the places we most routinely wait to wait is with our friends. As college students, we often find ourselves using friends to fill time between other events. Every student who has ever eaten in a dining hall surely has at least one friend whom they text to come eat with them. Is this because they require their company? Or because they do not want to eat alone?
In Lebanese-American poet Kahlil Gibran’s “The Prophet”, Gibran’s prophet encapsulates this issue (and its solution) well: “For what is your friend that you should seek [them] with hours to kill? Seek [them] always with hours to live.” Seeking out with hours to live is a useful notion for both friendship and life.
A friend of mine once remarked that there are not enough “people who do cool sh**” at Harvard. A nicer formulation of this is that too many people are waiting to wait. Not enough of us have entered the final state that Sartre ascribes to us: “A repose which would be being and no longer a waiting for being.” This final term is something that we can lose sight of if focusing on the minutia or if spending too much time planning our waitings.
Many of these waitings are good plans: go to graduate school, write a thesis, get a postdoctoral position, become a professor; or the more common, do investment banking for two years, get an MBA, go into private equity, return as a managing director. None of them address how to assume the final repose, how to “come to oneself,” as Sartre calls it.
This is not to say that these plans are flawed or that people should not make them. Instead, it is to encourage a certain amount of zooming out through leaning in. While this act may seem at odds with itself, it is through the proper appreciation of the everyday, the friends in our lives, that we find ourselves truly living.
It is no easy task to come to oneself. In many ways, we are encouraged by our surroundings to wait for the waiting. As with many things, there is an act of balancing. Sometimes we need to wait, sometimes wait to wait. Sometimes we should be excited to wait for Christmas to come.
All of us, however, are routinely given opportunities, sometimes as simple as a fall walk with a friend, to grasp our hours to live; to stop waiting. We should see Sartre’s necessitation not as an admonition, but a challenge. Be better scholars. Be better friends. Be better at being.
Henry A. Cerbone ’23, a special concentrator in Ontology of Autonomous Systems, lives in Adams House. His column "Academic Flotsam" appears on alternate Wednesdays.
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