Opinion: Stop waiting for ‘real life’ to start

Sometimes I wonder why I bring reusable bags to Meijer, why I bike to work, recycle cans or turn the shower off while I shampoo my hair.

In the face of corporations that inhale fossil fuels, belch out greenhouse gases and use more electricity in a minute than I could save in a lifetime, these things feel like they don’t matter.

Ultimately, the reason I recycle is not because one sheet of paper or even a lifetime of paper, makes much difference in the face of global deforestation.

Instead, the reason why I do these things is twofold. Through these actions, I am becoming the type of person I want to be, cultivating the values that I want my life to be governed by.

But I also recycle, bike to work, love myself and the people that surround me because it makes a difference right now in the small part of the world I live in.

Students today will be the engineering plant managers, the high school teachers and the U.S. senators of tomorrow. By building up a value of environmentalism now (or peace or equality or even honesty), they’ll continue to make decisions according to that value when they are in those positions.

Who we will be someday, we are becoming today.

But even as I use it, I’m tired of the rhetoric of “someday.” I believe in cultivating values for the future but I also believe that my actions matter today. Working towards an indeterminate future feels too abstract — and it lets our current selves off the hook.

People tell us that “real life” starts after we graduate, but the truth is that we’re already living it.

It’s true that college can be insular, and that many of the challenges and responsibilities of adulthood are postponed through loans, meal plans and carefully curated schedules. It’s not true, however, that the life lived through these things is somehow not yet “real.”

By recycling throughout college, we save pounds of trash from ending up in landfills — a small impact, yes, but certainly a real one. By biking to work, we reduce our dependence on fossil fuels but also demonstrate the importance of public transportation and the upkeep of sidewalks and bike lanes in our own cities.

Even at jobs, internships or volunteer assignments, we aren’t just building skills or values for us to use in some future position. Students at nonprofits serve real clients and make real change in their lives. Science students aren’t just observing; they’re producing real data with real-life applications.

It’s too easy to work half-heartedly now, promising that in the “real world” we’ll be diligent. It’s too easy to say that some day we’ll start exercising or tithing or going to bed on time.

The truth is that the circumstances of my life will change, but the values that these actions require will not. I will not wake up in “real life” with a work ethic I never practiced. I will never feel that I have money to give away unless I start giving when it hurts.

Someday I want to be the sort of person who recycles, who is generous and honest and brave. But I don’t have to wait for someday. I can, and should, start by being that person today.