As an assistant dean in the College, I spend a large part of my day listening to sophomores talk about their Georgetown experience. I hear a lot about lessons they learned in their first year, and a lot about plans they have for their Junior and Senior years and beyond. Often, after listening for a while, I lean back in my chair, look the student in the eye and say, “You know, the current will carry a dead body down stream.”

At that point, students often look at me as if I have lost my mind.

I like that line, though. It can serve as an unexpected smack in the head, which is often what good academic advising should be. Still, I find it usually needs some explanation, and as emphasis affects meaning, maybe it’s better to put it this way: “The current will carry a dead body down stream.”

Many Hoyas, young people who are among the most intelligent, talented, ambitious and well-intentioned this nation has to offer, are carried through their time at Georgetown by little more than the current. Too often I see smart, gifted, motivated, big-hearted people swept along – as if they had no choice – through four years on the Hilltop. It’s a shame. It drives me nuts.

The current, of course, is the collective force of the unwritten, taken-for-granted, “self evident” truths that are part of the air we Hoyas breathe. You know them: “I should go abroad. I should double major. I should major in something that will get me a job.” And, “College students are expected to drink ridiculously. College students are expected to be sexually active. College students are expected to cheat on their boyfriends/girlfriends.” And, of course, “Hoyas have everything under control. Hoyas are successful (read: $$$). Hoyas go on to law school, medical school, consulting firms, i-banking, the Hill or, failing all else, a year of volunteer service.”

That’s our current. It’s strong and it’s seductive. There is, after all, a certain comfort in being carried by the current. The problem is that the comfort can actually be little more than a dehumanizing numbness.

Notice, however, that not all of the things toward which our current sweeps us are, in and of themselves, bad. Going abroad can be a good and fruitful thing. So can going to law school or doing a year or two of volunteer work after graduation. Even double majoring occasionally makes sense. The problem arises when these things are entered into more by default than by well-informed choice. Again, the current will carry a dead body down stream.

At the same time, some of the things toward which the current carries us are inherently hazardous. They’re the jagged but well disguised rocks on our route through Georgetown. Imagine, for example, the amount of needless human suffering that would be forgone if Hoyas were to avoid stupid drinking and ill-considered sex. Imagine the amount of frustration and disappointment that would be sidestepped if Hoyas were to choose their majors – and their careers – on the basis of their heart’s deepest desires.

But all of that takes the ability to navigate against the current and maneuver around the rocks. It takes practice and good coaching. And it depends on deliberate choice. Getting the sort of Georgetown education, the sort of Georgetown experience that you deserve depends largely on the exercise of the profoundly mysterious gift that lies at the heart of who you are: your free will.

Too many Hoyas barter that gift away in exchange for the short-lived security that comes from surrendering to the current.

So, can you realistically hope to be something other than a dead body carried down stream? Yes, if you remember three things: you’re smart, you’re free, you’re human.

You’re smart enough to engage in meaningful and systematic reflection on your experience, even as you’re in the midst of it. You’re free enough to make conscious and life-shaping choices here and now on the basis of your reflection. You’re human enough to discover that in the end you’re not self-sufficient. You need time with wise people and God to help you exercise your freedom well.

Holding all of that together in a place as complex and driven as Georgetown is no easy task. That’s why we Hoyas need to remind one another regularly that we are not dead bodies at the mercy of the current, but human beings who are very much alive, human beings created in the image and likeness of God who is, if the Scriptures are to be believed, Love.

All of which is why I love my job.

Fr. Ryan Maher, SJ (C ’82) is an assistant dean in the College. As This Jesuit Sees It… appears every other Friday.

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