The start of a new school year is incredibly sad. Have you been spending an inordinate amount of time gazing at the ragged fabric dangling from the bottoms of library chairs? Or at the formidable wind regurgitations of dry leaves strewn across the sidewalk? Or at the lone deer in the distance, their midsections slivered into strips by the thin tree trunks of lightly forested neighborhoods? If observations like this have been disproportionately capturing, and clinging on to your attention for the better part of each September day, there is a reason for it. You are struggling to face the unforgiving reality of a new grade designation, which is catapulting you unnervingly closer to the flailing uncertainty and mundanity of post-graduate adult life, or unnervingly farther from the foolish joy and authenticity of your salad days, depending on where your sentimentalities lie.
I became a sophomore this year, and I am already struck by the rapid loss of innocence one experiences during this transition. Pretty much every poor descision, idiotic statement, or bout of obliviousness could be easily excused as a freshman. They’ve never lived independently before, they only just finished high school, or no one ever told them, how could they have known? people would say about freshman mishaps. The bar was so low that I personally found great satisfaction in being able to occasionally well exceed it and impress everyone around me. As a freshman, I felt like any failure to thrive or manage oneself was fully justified, given the sympathetic variables of homesickness, awkwardness, anxiety, getting lost, etc. Whereas any success was a wonderful achievement, which immediately elevated one’s status to “functional member of community” instead of “insufferable neophyte.” All of this is to say that in the case of sophomore year, no huge strides in maturity have been made for most, but the bar is raised significantly higher, and, in general, no one cares about you at all anymore for any reason.
Circling back to drifting thoughts, sometimes we have to focus acutely on emotionally unwavering experiences like foxes running across streets and rain sounds at night in order to keep from slipping into nihilism based on the increasingly rapid movement of our short lives. Many seem to look forward to a new year of college because it is “fun,” but this attitude becomes suspect once the typical fun-cycle of your average college student is scrutinized. The pinnacles of fun are entirely based upon multi-weekly celebrations of sense-numbing by means of mind-inhibitory substances like alcohol. For the moment, this practice seems perfectly joyous and even universal, but within the context of our short lives, it gets depressing fast. Is life worth living if the reward system within that life relies on anesthetizing yourself to experience of that life? This predicament is what truly seems to be placing us all in a post-youth period, because what is adulthood if not confronting harshest elements of life and attempting to take shelter from them? What I think is sad about our college fun is that we still have some time before we have to face those elements head-on. And yet, we mimic the drowning of pain but think of it instead as social lubricant.
The final reason why the beginning of the school year is a sad time, is that there are mountains of work to be done, expectations to be made and met, and hopes to be had in front of us, with only summer’s flatlands of ease and spontaneity in the rearview mirror. The sheer amount of undertakings ahead, with no momentum from behind, can be paralyzing. When I’m at the base of those mountains, I have zero desire to turn back, but the lack of gradual incline can leave me doubting my ability to abruptly scale the many peaks. This paralysis can also leave me wondering whether I want instead to find some alternate avenue towards the future, like circumnavigating the mountains, or joining forces with some other forlorn travelers and digging a tunnel right through the center. But at the end of the day I always end up taking the first ten steps upwards and realizing I might as well keep going. The silver lining to this predicament is that you come to understand, as you continue forward, that few of the expectations you made turned out to be true. Nothing appears the way you thought it would. If you can acclimate to the sheer unpredictability that surrounds you, it no longer becomes a source of sorrow, but of endless amazement.
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