At Princeton, life is busy. This should come as no surprise to anyone who has spoken to one of the five thousand undergraduates who call this chilly part of New Jersey home — this is a campus where students are known to hang out at a dining hall much past midnight, sipping coffee and finishing assignments, where many need an electric scooter, bike or skateboard to get from one lecture to another in time, where students schedule things like “Coffee with Grady” in their Google Calendar to ensure that they can fit in their social obligations alongside their academic and extracurricular ones.
There is something exciting about the bustle, to be sure, but this campus can be a tiring place. On the first day of November, I took the chance to slow down with the Religious Life Council, a project of the Office of Religious Life (ORL), for a talk on “Scholarship as a Contemplative Practice.” Contemplation — a key part of existence that I find easy to forget in college, when everything can feel so fast-paced and objective-focused.
The Office of Religious Life is located at Murray-Dodge Hall, one of my favorite buildings on campus — not least of which because of its open-daily cafe which offers free tea and cookies, its beautiful redbrown archways and the Joni Mitchell quote inscribed on a table in the quiet inner courtyard. The talk on contemplation was here, and as ever, when I entered Murray-Dodge, I felt a little calmer.
The ORL is always full with tea, conversation and friends old and new, and this night was no different. After a quick dinner and chat, we — students, faculty, staff and other members of the Princeton community — filed into a room where we unstacked and lined up chairs in a semi-circle facing the three professors who were there to talk. Although I no longer would describe myself as religious (which isn’t as uncommon as one might think at the ORL), this tradition reminded me fondly of the past: unstacking and restacking folding chairs at the United Methodist church I attended growing up.
Professors Ruha Benjamin, Yair Mintzker and Michael Hecht talked for a half hour about their experiences melding the contemplative and the scholastic; about focusing on research as a thing in itself to be prized, rather than to advance yourself and your career; about placing yourself in the narrative that your work produces; about the comfortable analogues between religion and science. Professor Benjamin described her experience in graduate school, when she had to work hard to ensure that what she was doing was actually connected to the real world and its real people. (Of course, they spoke about many other things as well, but I don’t feel well equipped enough to reconstruct their comments here faithfully.)
The talk was a welcome distraction from the work I left safely in my dorm room. For an hour and change, I thought deeply about something that was completely divorced from my various classes in semantic theory, philosophy of race and the italian subjunctive; I thought deeply about myself and my relation to this place called Princeton and all the demands that attending college anywhere places on a person. There is always time to take a break from strenuous, narrowly-focused work — there is always time to let the mind wander and think about other things — there is always time to close the textbooks. I carve out time to do this wherever I can; attending talks, screenings or readings that have nothing to do with a class I’m taking or something I want to major in. There is always time to be enriched by other things.