Williams needs more service and spirituality

Spring Break, like other times that we leave the college and come back again, immerses us in locations and schedules unlike what we grow accustomed to during the school year. It offers us the opportunity and necessary perspective to reflect upon the quality of the social environment here at Williams. I do not mean “social” in the limited sense of parties, dating and weekend gatherings, but in the much broader sense of all the stimuli we exchange with other human beings.

There are at least two reasons why such reflection is extremely important. The first is that the community we live in radically influences our actions and our lives. We learn in biology and psychology that, along with heredity, environment makes us who we are; yet often we forget that it continues to make its daily imprint on us even at college.

If we can better understand the positive and negative influences that we receive from our environment, we will be more capable of flowing with the good and shielding ourselves from the harmful. The second reason is that we are the ones who shape the community that shapes us. The decisions we make about how we are going to live have a definite impact on others.

I would like to share my observations on this topic, and would be interested in knowing what you think. On the positive side, I have noted that, compared with home and most other places, there is a strong vibe of productivity and success here. Williams’ academic and athletic prowess is incontestable, and results from a wealth of talent and intense effort. Everyone here is good at something – be it English, economics or math, playing soccer, squash or the guitar, drawing, skiing or acting. In this sense, we feed off one another positvely.

We also feed off of one another in a much less constructive way, however: there is a strong vibe of stress at Williams College that corrodes the quality of many people’s lives.

Excessive stress results from an inability to cope with life’s (or college’s) demands in a healthy way. It also results from the lack of perspective that comes with a self-centered schedule. Stress in an individual or community reflects a lack of balance. Williams students study hard, they exercise hard, they often party hard, some work hard and do lots of extracurriculars; but that is not enough for balance. I submit that the antidote to our communal stress and imbalanced lives is a greater commitment to service and spirituality.

Service to others, besides improving the quality of their lives, loosens the grip that our self-centered worries exert on our minds and feelings. Spirituality provides the inner weapons – among them peace and wisdom – that render stress harmless. The two are deeply related, because service is an integral part of spirituality, and living spiritually is the highest form of service. I should note that I use the word spirituality broadly – to include, among others things, meditation, reading the scriptures or other spiritual books, prayer, devotional chanting, moral self-improvement and introspective philosophical examination.

Part of the problem is the excessive workload at Williams, which (if you do all the work) leaves little time for non-intellectual self-cultivation. I would therefore applaud an effort by the college to reduce the average workload per class (while not reducing – perhaps even increasing – expectations in terms of the quality of student output). Even more important, however, is for each of us to determine that despite the demands of an intense workload and despite the demands of athletics and clubs, we will make time every day to be good to others, by becoming spiritual people and by serving them in concrete ways. I made that decision in my latter years at Williams, and though I still have very, very far to go in becoming truly spiritual and serviceful, it has already made the difference in my happiness and mental health.

Outside of Williamstown, northern Berkshire County is an economically depressed area that could greatly benefit from increased activism in community service at the college. And outside of the constraining, self-made spheres of our personal worries and desires, the world is a place that needs our future leadership to be not only intelligent, but compassionate and wise.

The best thing we can do is to reserve a time every day just for spiritual activity, and be as regular about it as we are about eating. In addition, since we are such a diverse group, let us all – Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, agnostic and others – open our hearts and minds to each other’s various beliefs and make Williams College an environment not just of academic and athletic prowess, but also of spirituality, service, peace and joy.