Giving Thanks for the Ability to Chose Our Free Time

As a college freshman, the first day of Thanksgiving break comes as a brilliant beacon of light, offering a long-awaited opportunity to retreat from what feels like the busiest, most demanding chapter of your life. Upon arriving home, you walk through your front door, drop your bags and let out a deep sigh of relief as though you were an accomplished soldier returning home from war.  

Whether or not you enjoyed your first semester, you most likely returned to your hometown with the newfound notion that 24  hours is simply not enough to suffice for one day. For the first time—perhaps in your whole life—you had to balance reading Descartes with religiously attending Saturday afternoon football games and spending long days in the reading room with staying out until 2 a.m. eating pizza. Over the course of your first semester in college, “free time” quickly becomes your most precious commodity, and by mid-November, you have likely developed the firm conviction that you are being robbed of it in some esoteric, unjustifiable way.

The loss of extra time that you inevitably experience as a freshman creates a subtle sense of resentment, though you are uncertain onto whom it should be projected. You registered for the five classes you are enrolled in. You provided your email to 15 clubs at the activities fair. You decided you could not possibly miss another Saturday night out. Still, on some irrational level, you secretly resent the responsibilities you subjected yourself to, whether that be a final project, a soccer practice at 10 p.m., or a Saturday night social for your club. Amid the endless flux of excitement and stress you experience during those first few months, you can begin to feel like you are busier than everyone around you and find yourself longing for a blank space in time—a moment to step back and simply do nothing for a change.

Fortunately, I’ve found that the human ego tends to deflate with the passage of time. Though academic pressures and responsibilities only increase with each year, I think the gravity which we place on our personal schedules decreases as we mature. This is not to say that we stop taking our personal obligations seriously or that we lose interest in attending Saturday night football games, but we gradually begin to see such events in the greater scheme of things. As we grow closer and closer to the dusk of our college careers, the “real world” inevitably slips into view, and we are necessarily summoned to gaze ahead.

This past Thanksgiving break was one of those rare instances in which that “dusk ” suddenly came into perfect clarity for me. My cousin Bobby, a junior at West Point, had brought several cadets, who were unable to make it home for the holiday, back to my aunt’s house. I sat across the table from one of them, making small talk over mouthfuls of stuffing.

“So, tell me, what does a typical weekday at Boston College look like?” he asked. “I’m just curious what it’s like to actually have free time.”

Though his tone was entirely respectful, and it was obvious that his question arose from a place of genuine curiosity, I immediately felt myself grow defensive.

Free time? I thought. What free time? If only he knew how much work we have.

I answered his question, nonetheless, and began to ramble about the routine that typically runs my days, including my class schedule, how many hours I devote to my assignments, and what I do with my friends on the weekends.

“You’d be surprised how quickly the time gets away from you,” I added. Then I asked him to tell me what a typical day at West Point looks like. He described his weekday schedule, which begins everyday with a mandatory workout at 6 a.m, class from 8:30 to 4—with only 15 minutes to eat lunch in between—a two-hour wrestling practice in the evening, and then several hours of homework at night.

“It’s definitely a lot,” he concluded. “But it’s worth it in the long run.”

I didn’t know what to say. Though I consider myself a busy person, I knew then that I could not possibly relate to the rigidity of his schedule. Moreover, I was struck by the fact that he, along with the rest of the West Point student body, had personally chosen to subject themselves to such a lifestyle, the reward being the honor of eventually serving our country.

In that moment, my gaze shifted to the end of the table, where my mother was preparing a humble plate of mashed potatoes to bring back to my grandfather, who is currently recovering from a major surgery to remove the cancer from his esophagus. Over the past three months, her and her three sisters have dedicated themselves to caring for him, driving back and forth each week to ensure that he feels supported and that he knows he is not alone.

Not once has my mother complained about this, even though it has forced her to sacrifice the majority of her personal time. Not once has she, nor any of my aunts, asked to be applauded or recognized for their hard work. Their selflessness was instinctual and second-nature, springing from that universal filial desire to give back to those who raised us.

I turned to my sister, 14 with braces, awkwardly leaning back in her chair as my uncle uncorked another bottle of wine for the table. She rolled her eyes frequently because she cannot go anywhere without first arranging a carpool in a group message of 15 preteen girls who seem to get an endorphin rush every time their thumbs hit the glass screen of their iPhones. She often argues that the school week should only be three days long. I’ll admit, six-consecutive hours of classes and long field hockey practices would be exhausting for anyone, especially amid the ever-mounting social pressures of middle school.

My older brother sat across from her. If it was up to him, he would eat pizza for breakfast and spend his days shirtless, perusing his favorite comic books and writing stories about the characters he loves, but instead he wakes up early every day to attend classes at the University of Vermont, despite the intellectual disabilities that sometimes make social and academic conventions a challenge.

The Thanksgiving table is a sort of crossroads, a central point at which our individual paths temporarily intersect, our stories suddenly overlap, and—if only for a moment—we collide into the experience of gratitude. Sitting at the table surrounded by these people from various walks and stages of life, I recognized how lucky I am to be a college student, who has the freedom to take classes that interest me, to personally allocate my time, and to focus on my own growth as an individual.

As students, it is so easy to forget that this “freedom” is a privilege and that our academic, extracurricular, and social responsibilities are obligations which we personally decided to take on. Simply recalling the fact that we chose to devote our time to the commitments we so often complain about changes the way that we approach them. Suddenly, we see our “duties” not as obstacles which prevent us from enjoying more free time but as reflections of the freedom we are fortunate to have, both in our society and in this fleeting chapter of our lives.

Featured Graphic by Ally Mozeliak / Graphics Editor