There are two distinct voices that resonate through the psyche of a college student. The first is that anxious whisper which comes to you in the dead of the night, pulling you from your sleep and reminding you that you have two papers to write by Friday, that you should probably start applying for internships, and that you have a mere two years until you graduate and must enter the real world.
This is the voice that gets you out of bed in the morning, motivating you to show up to class on time, to constantly think ahead, and to blaze through the endless to-do list that exists in your mind. But it’s also the voice that makes your heart begin to race, that floods your mind with anxious thoughts, and that tears you from the present moment.
Most of the time we are not even cognizant of this incessant mental murmur and yet, it has a powerful grip on the way we view the world. It propels us into tomorrow before we’ve even begun to experience today. We become so fixated on the future that our perceptions of reality begin to function in fast-motion, for we are always onto the “next thing,” outlining the succeeding chapters of our lives as though we’re robots programmed to manage time.
And then there’s that second voice that momentarily emerges from the shadows of our minds as a shrill shriek of panic—that voice which yearns to stop time altogether and to freeze the present moment. It comes to you in times of utter appreciation, yet it leaves you paralyzed with fear—when you’re happily walking back from class on a crisp Friday afternoon and it occurs to you that this place will not be home forever, or when your professor gives a brilliant lecture that lights up your mind and you recall that you will one day trade your studenthood for a real job. These are the moments where we want to grip our desks and refuse to let go. We want to drop our pens—to stop planning, crafting, and designing the rest of our lives and simply let our stories be as they are.
These contradicting desires are always competing for our energy, so we find ourselves constantly fluctuating between between momentum and resistance—our desire to charge into the future and our fear of missing out on the beauty that exists right now.
The phrase “live in the moment” has become a common cliche in modern American culture, one that is all too often misinterpreted. There seems to be a trending misconception, particularly within our generation, that “living in the moment” means kicking back and idly watching one’s life pass by. In reality, slowing down and engaging in our moment-to-moment experience is one of the greatest challenges an individual can embark upon.
As a society, we condition ourselves to maintain a steadfast gaze on the future, keeping our eyes perpetually pointed on the next bend in the road. Shifting our attention back to the present moment is therefore incredibly difficult, for it forces us to take a step back when we’ve already begun to march ahead. This cultural conditioning becomes particularly evident in the realm of college campuses, where students are swimming in a sea of responsibilities and constantly fighting to keep their heads above water.
Not only is there a ceaseless pressure for us not to sink, but it urges us to get ahead and to stay on top of everything, even when the waves are crashing down. Rarely do we see anyone who chooses to float—who deliberately decides to roll with the tides rather than ride them. Some may argue that college is an ideal time to plan for the future and to be proactive, so we ought to take control now. The paradoxical truth, however, is that we cannot truly prepare for the future until we develop a thorough understanding of who we are in the present moment. In order to know what we want down the road, we must first be attentive to the path below our feet—before we can contemplate what lies in the background of our stories, we must first actively engage in the foreground of our individual experiences.
In a self-help article on Goalcast, writer Matt Valentine discusses the “optimum balance” between planning for the future and living in the present moment. He writes, “The reality is, these issues of managing responsibilities as well as setting and analyzing goals realistically should only take a small portion of our time. But we cycle through the same issues so repeatedly that what ends up happening is we spend our whole day in an elusive future.”
The problem with living “in an elusive future” is that we not only miss out on the present, but we also can begin to lose touch with the individuals we are right now in this current moment. Our values, beliefs, and perspectives on the world are constantly shifting—we will never be this exact version of ourselves ever again.
In a certain sense, then, “living in the moment” becomes an infinitely sacred practice—not only does it enable us to more deeply experience the present, but it also serves to silence the incessant voices in our mind. And it is there, in that silence, that we stumble upon the most authentic version of ourselves.
Featured Graphic by Anna Tierney / Graphics Editor