The Real World

"Welcome to the real world.” This, I have learned, is the customary way to greet a recent college graduate. A year ago I was hearing it constantly, from friends, family, even my dentist. It made me wonder where they thought I had been for the past four years.

When people make knowing references to the “real world” that follows graduation, they mean the working world and the responsibilities and burdens that go with it—getting a job, paying rent, acquiring health insurance, sticking to a budget. They aren’t talking about places like Payatas.

I spent the summer before my senior year in Payatas, a Filipino village built on the Manila city dump. Some classmates and I were there on a service trip. We were guests of the religious sisters who served Payatas and, by extension, of the entire village.

In the midst of stray dogs, tin huts, and polluted streams, we supervised a day of games for the village children. The kids swarmed all over their visitors, vying for our attention, grabbing at any loose clothing or limbs they could reach. After a few games, I sat down to watch from the sidelines, and soon I had three little ones sitting on my knees. I bounced them up and down, and they laughed and squealed. Before I knew it, one little boy, in tattered clothes and with a slowly healing wound on the back of his head, had fallen asleep on my lap.

In that moment, I took in my surroundings—the children running and playing, the adults lining the basketball court around us, the weight of the child fast asleep on my lap, and the mound of garbage rising above us, filling the air with a stench so foul it penetrated everything. I was surrounded by people who had nothing, who lived in the most dismal conditions, who made a living by sifting through other people’s garbage. But they were joyful, and their joy shone through in their love for others. I was at peace, filled with the happiness of the people around me. They reminded me that life is meant to be cherished no matter where you are. They made me realize how fortunate I am. And they challenged me to recognize injustice and to do something about it.

The “real world” I was welcomed into at graduation seemed to revolve around me—my finances and my well-being. Not once did anyone offer me pointers on how to live a just lifestyle. Nor did they ask me what I was doing for others, how I was making room in my budget for charity, or how my job connected to the compassion that child in Payatas had taught me. Those all seemed to be ideals I should have left on the welcome mat to the real world.

The four years I spent in college, though, were nothing if not real. Doing service and living what I learned drew me out of myself (and off campus) into the world around me. But even more, the relationships I developed with the strangers I served, professors who taught me, and friends I cherished drew me into a world of relationships—of living with and for others.

Supporting the weight of another human being is an unforgettable sensation. It gives you a sense of responsibility, an obligation to care for the one who has found comfort in your arms, who trusts you enough to be held up by you. I had that sense when I held that child in Payatas, and the significance of that moment still weighs on me today.

Sure, I worry about balancing my checkbook and making my insurance payments. But I am blessed that those responsibilities don’t keep me up at night. Knowing that safe water is a luxury for people in sub-Saharan Africa, or that a family in Philadelphia can be divided because of their immigration status—this is the weight that now sits on my lap. College made me aware of problems greater than my own—and of sources of joy deeper than the “real world” offers. That is the burden of an education, a burden that will never be lifted.

Published in the 2010-05-21 issue: 

Colleen Gibson is a novice with the Sisters of St. Joseph of Philadelphia and blogs at Wandering in Wonder.

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