It’s 5 a.m. Outside my window, the local dogs and roosters are already partaking in their daily brawl to find out who can be the loudest. Street vendors selling foods and beverages are already making their rounds, and the entire community begins to become alive. By this point, I’m usually frustrated, confused, but awake and ready to start my day in the Philippines where I’ll be living for the next four months. In seemingly mundane moments like this, I’ve been able to reflect on the importance of being present and appreciating experiences and events as they come. Being present has been my mantra during my time here thus far, and it will continue to be, so that I can take all of these situations and shape them into something more meaningful and life-giving.
On an average day at Boston College, how present are we? A coffee date with a friend at Hillside is not just a coffee date-it’s a Facebook-browsing, Snapchatting, worrying-about-homework distraction. Our generation is challenged with being present in everyday life, and so often, we miss what’s actually significant. I’ve already discussed this in terms of appreciating the details in everyday life, but I think this idea permeates other realms as well. T.S. Eliot said that often, we simply go through the motions and have experiences but miss the meanings. Paying attention sometimes is the hardest thing to do in certain situations. Whether it’s sitting through a lackluster economics lecture, a long practice, or even a conversation, we so readily retreat to what David Foster Wallace refers to as our own “tiny skull sized kingdoms,” wherein we believe that the world revolves solely around us, our choices, and our problems. When we become imprisoned in these mental fortresses, being present to what’s actually happening in the world around us suddenly becomes paralyzing and difficult. By focusing on that less-than-desirable test score, Twitter, a questionable decision, and other trivial ideas, we may miss the experiences that are right in front of us and often hold more weight than what is off in the distance of our own minds.
Many service trips and other social justice groups tend to enforce this idea of presence. The idea holds that only when one is fully present in a situation can he or she actively engage in reality and start to comprehend the stories that are below the surface and are only accessible once one is fully in the moment. At my Pulse placement freshman year, I found it easy to resort to thinking about my own problems, commitments, or relationships while I was on site, and for the first semester I wasn’t able to grasp what was truly going on in the lives of the clients and what the underlying social problems were. My professor told me to stop worrying about all of the distracting and insignificant things in life and really listen closely for the true stories that were being told, the ones below the surface. To understand these stories, I would have to be fully present in these truths.
Engaging reality seems like an abstract term, but what it breaks down to are the simple notions of being present, attentive, observant, and open. It’s about embracing everyday experiences to illuminate the beautiful and complex below the surface, as well as distancing yourself from your own self-indulgent thoughts. Instead of concentrating on external issues, think about what you’re faced with right now. What are you really hearing? What is someone trying to tell you that may not be obvious? Only then can you begin to realize that the stories that have always been just out of reach below the surface of everyday understanding are more accessible and significant than you may think. So who knows, maybe the loud animals outside my window at 5 a.m. are actually trying to tell me something life-changing. All I have to do is clear my mind, and listen.