On the cusp of graduation, I am leaning against a marble staircase, dimly aware of the moving shadows of passing people and the brilliant cloudless sky bright behind the outstretched bare branches of Bryant Park. My thoughts are traversing the time-space continuum, gliding back two years to the edge of the second floor in the 245 Lexington library, where a long wooden table overlooks the passing traffic. The whooshing car tires against the pavement sounded like faint ocean waves to my first-year-of-college ears, as I excitedly began my first newspaper article, the only article that I never finished.
With my hands posed over the keyboard in that quiet corner of the library, I picked my topic with the clarity and confidence of a not-yet-twenty year old; I simply wanted to write about ideals. I entered college with a religious fervor, a ravenous hunger for education, and a passion for life. I wanted to write against those who hinted that my post-seminary, pre-“real world” idealism was just a phase. “Don’t worry, she’ll outgrow it,” I imagined they whispered to my parents. Or the classic, “I used to think like that when I was your age too, but then, you know…” I was disheartened by the well-meaning advice of those who suggested the youth needed to tone down their idealism. My article, I imagined, would praise the value of childhood wonder and sincerity, and would demand that if we held on strong enough our passion for life, it would not falter. Why must we view idealism as a whimsy fanciful quality that drifts aimlessly from generation to generation, ephemeral and fruitless, unable to withstand the full force of practical reality?
Throughout that first semester, I thought about this article often. I never wrote it. It still remains saved in the abyss of my computer, in my black hole folder labeled “Documents,” and titled, “Wonder, Idealism, and Passion.” The perfect title for a not-yet-twenty year old. I guess the unfinished article represents my idealism at that time—passionate and fiery, and unsustainable.
“I remember when I first arrived. Everything was so big and busy and alive […..] And now, it’s different. I run from class to class, event to event, hurry to squeeze this or that into my schedule. I finish class, eat dinner, go back to the dorm, or work in the library and then go to bed. What happened to the wonder, the amazement, the hope? (Unpublished article notes, Page 1)
Time trickled by, drop by drop, eroding my enthusiasm like Rabbi Akiva’s rock. I heard their voices in my head, “You’re going to lose your childlike idealism; That’s life; Get over it.” The crunch of the cars passing on the streets below no longer sounded like the distant waves but rushing waters pulling me forward through life.
Tests, schedules, and final papers, and the rushing waters continued to pull me forward. I didn’t have time to breath. Drowning. Drop, by drop, by drop.
I long for the time when I first learned to daven….just me talking to G-d. In that moment, the world shattered, it was as if nothing else existed, as if nothing ever existed. Eternity whispered softly in the air. But now, the world does not shatter in my mind [as much] anymore, it must always be decidedly there, because I have an appointment with that teacher after I finish praying and then I have a meeting for that club I’m in, and then I have to write my psychology paper….It’s harder to disappear from the practicalities of the world, even for a moment…Now heaven and no longer falling before your eyes. You no longer have time for that. You have a test tomorrow. (Unpublished article notes, Page 1)
I saw girls evolve, change, harden, grow. We were changing. We were all changing, being pulled down the river of our lives. The changes were good, we told ourselves. They were needed…or were we simply making excuses to help us sleep at night? Hold on, I tell myself. Hold on. We adapted to our new surroundings, the pushing, shoving city of New York.
Even in my first semester, I sensed some of my idealism fading. And it troubled me. Because I didn’t want the adults to be right. I knew they weren’t right. At least, I thought so.
Wonder, idealism, goals and hopes, dreams and passions, Things we begin with as the child, and which grow and grow and grow as we discover the world, and then with our first stumbling steps into adulthood, we settle down into a well-thought-out, planned, prepared, and nicely-scheduled complacency. (Unpublished article notes, Page 1)
“Have we lost what matters most?” I wondered why people kept telling me, “Wait until you get to the real world.” As if the way I had lived before was not equally real. I questioned: why can we not still hope and dream and imagine and ponder the world while studying, writing reports and managing events? While going to work and doing a job? Why is that no longer an option?
As the seeds of this new article took root in my mind, I thought this was how the story would end, with the dejection at how all children become adults and lose part of their passion for life in the process of growing up and confronting the real world. But something happened which changed the course of my thinking. Here I was, dreaming in Bryant Park, when some friends passed by and directed me towards a quote underneath one of the statues.
“Yet let no empty gust
Of passion find an utterance in thy lay,
A blast that whirls the dust
Along the howling street and dies away;
But feelings of calm power and mighty sweep,
Like currents journeying through the windless deep.” –William Cullen Bryant
The contrast between the calm power and the empty gusts of passions struck me. Images of different people I knew flashed before my eyes. A woman in the hospital, a teacher, a friend. People whose ideals were not whimsy pieces of thought but part and parcel of their daily lives. Their passions and values written so tightly into the fabric of their being that time could not wither their freshness. People who did not drown in the business or the stressors of life, but who floated gracefully down the river with a calm and mighty purpose. People who did not just survive, did not just live through one day and the next, but blossomed in life and in doing so, positively impacted the world around them.
I thought about how, over the course of my time at Stern College for Women, I have met people, became friends with people, admired people, and became the student of people, who are constantly striving. Complacency and desensitization, I realized, are not necessary outgrowths of aging or of life itself. The “real world” is not an obstacle to ideals but a handmaiden through which those ideals can be realized. Goals and visions would fly away if they could not perch on the stable foundations of practical matters. Bryant’s quote reminded me of people whose ideals had not flown away but instead had nestled into the core of their being, and through their involvement in the world, became translated into action.
As I walked back to Stern, I looked back at who I was when I began college and who I am now, and I thought about the ideals that had grown stronger, firmer and deeper through a confrontation with the business of reality. And I thought about how going from childhood from adulthood, from seminary to college, from more to less free time may shift how ideals are expressed and may mature beliefs, but that does not mean that a passion for life is no longer a part of you. It just looks different. It might now be wearing a business suit and have a few more wrinkles, but that does not mean it is not the same old friend. Life’s pressures and business do not need to diminish ideals, but can instead elevate them from thought into practice; into living, breathing values that become part of how you encounter, process and proceed in life.
I think when people said, “Wait ‘till you get older,” they didn’t mean the idealism would go away. They just meant it would be harder. They meant it would be transformed from empty gusts of passions into calm, mighty values deeply embedded into our beings. They meant we would be confronted with reality and we would become stronger and bolder and more knowledgeable about ourselves and the world around us. And what they probably knew was that it was going to be hard, and if it was not hard then it would not be worth the challenge. And what they might not have meant, but what I know now, was that the translation from ideals to reality might not be perfect, and would never be perfect, but one can still have and still believe in “An asymptote toward which you are constantly striving” (Paul Kalanithi).