The Conspiracy

Graduation! And it Feels So…

H.B. graduates! It is official: She has no idea what she’s doing with her life.

I went to my graduation. It was about as anti-climactic as I expected it to be: my gown was the same obscene shade of red as everyone else’s, I didn’t have enough time to shower before the ceremony, and the rain forced me to wear shoes.

I know, these are all material concerns. But in twenty years, they are the ones I’ll remember, right?

But in all honesty, graduation wasn’t so bad. It was actually kind of funny. All 800 of us graduates shivering slightly in the May rain, bound together by our shared… varieties of hangovers and sleep-deprivation. Some, I am pretty sure, were still drunk. The surrounding jittery faces made it clear that my friends and I weren’t the only ones that had attempted to stay up all night. I guess we had all thought that by not going to sleep, somehow, the night would never end, and in that way, our lives as we knew them would never end as well.

As we waited to begin the walking procession, I breathed in slowly, in the effort to clear my head and take it in, all of it. Restless, scared, excited, tired, loud. There was a lot of laughing, and a lot of silence. We began to walk. Today I Am Graduating. I said to myself, over and over, trying to imbue the words with some sense of meaning or finality. Today Is The Day I Am Graduating. But they just felt like words. I didn’t feel any different; there was no magical Disney woosh going through my insides. It was overcast and cold and I discreetly ate handfuls of Peanut Butter Puffins to stay the growling of my insides. Today. Graduating. As we walked in rows of two through the center of campus, with hordes of cameras and families grinning at us, I felt small pinpricks flutter at the edges of my eyes, but then they were gone.

What was my biggest take-away from graduation (other than the firm handshake I received along with my blank diploma holder)? The assurance that it is okay to have no idea what I am going to do with my life. This was corroborated enthusiastically by all of our graduation speakers, even the ones who seemed to have a semblance of what they were doing with their lives. One of my favorite professors, Elvin Lim, put it a bit more eloquently than I can. He spoke about uncertainty, contingency, and unpredictability.

Standing there in his black velvet suit, he began with a sketch of how contingency has effected human history over time. Contingency, he explained, has been the driving force for humans to create things and ideas. For example, the uncertainty of rain: What is it and why does it occur? In order to answer that question, throughout history, we have believed in idols, gods, sciences. “We do not like not knowing,” he said. “But any “knowing” is merely a device to distract ourselves from the reality that, despite all the facts and bibles and prophecies, we simply do not know.” Ever. He then extended these musings to the realm of happiness and ambition. Why do we want money? He asked. Because money buys happiness? He laughed. No, money doesn’t buy happiness- but it does buy certainty. With enough money, you can feel more secure in your life, more able to get through the curveballs that life throws at you. Money guarantees you protection from the weather, food if you ever want it, entertainment if you’re ever bored. But happiness, he continued, isn’t money and it isn’t certainty. No matter how much we hole up in our moneyed fortresses of faux certainty, life can never be controllable. Happiness, he argued, is allowing uncertainty to live inside of you. Embracing that which we can never know. Not fighting the inevitable. Peace comes only when we finally accept that we will never be at peace. We will always have various forces raging inside of us. Contingency will always exist.

As I sat in my white folding chair, flanked on both sides by 800 red robes and the elusively cold sunshine, I thought a lot about uncertainty. Contingency. Unpredictability. Especially how it relates to me and how I live my life. Like many of the people around me, I do not have a plan for the rest of my life. My friend Sara’s parents yell at her daily as they try to iron out the details of her supposed “five-year plan,” and I grimace from the next room. Is it irresponsible that not only do I not have one, but that I don’t even want one? That every time I sit and try to think about myself five years down the road, I freak out and force myself to do something else? Write, draw, listen to music. Even homework. Anything but think about the future.

I’m not totally sure why my insides curl at the thought of having a career-ready job and a solid life-long plan. Why I cringe at the thought of marriage, or owning a house, or having kids; all things, really, that require commitment and consistency. Maybe it is part of being young, or maybe, in some ways, I acknowledge the reality of unpredictability that life holds. Maybe, in some way, I haven’t let the lure of consistency delude me from the variability of life and the inconsistencies of happiness and desire. And while I know that as I get older there will be certain responsibilities outside of myself that will tether me to certain jobs or ambitions, right now, at twenty-two, they don’t yet exist. I could move to Ecuador tomorrow and work on a farm for three months; I could couch-surf all the way to California; I could barista at the coffee shop down the street. I could spend nights fretting over what to write my novel about, spend days wandering through my neighborhood in a long flowy skirt and no shoes. So why not? These are all things that are possible, that won’t always be. And I don’t know where they’ll lead. Maybe I’ll love Ecuador and stay for six years, and maybe I’ll only love it a little, and quietly wait for my plane-ride home. Maybe I’ll meet people there who are about to drive across the border somewhere else, and I’ll join them. It isn’t that any of these possibilities are more exciting than the others (in fact, they are all terrifying in their small ways), it is that, no matter how hard I try to plan it all out, I can’t possible have any idea. Whether or not I choose, like many others, to stick it out in New York, get an apartment, get a job, try to work my way to the top (or whatever the rhetoric for working hard is these days), there is no guarantee that anything will actually work out the way I plan. That being the head of this company, or the founder of that project will actually bring me the sense of internal eudaimonia that I crave. Or that, twenty years from now, I won’t look out the window of my bedroom and wish deeply that I could be anywhere else.

And so, for right now, with a week of the “real world” under my belt, I am trying my best to stay calm as I plan the next few months. Not years, just months. College was beautiful, but not for the reasons that most people pretend. So few people in our country, let alone our world, have the privilege of spending four years at college. Think about it: Four whole years, and all you have to do is learn. When else in my life will I be able to simply think all day long, talk to others on that purely theoretical plane, and plan the world together? We charted the stars, laughed about good books, stressed about impossible paper deadlines, discussed the ways that history has affected the world of today, postulated the ways that our lives will affect the world of tomorrow.

I’m terrified of leaving school. Terrified of making decisions. Terrified of regret, feeling stuck, being bored. What will happen when one of the decisions I make ends poorly? What will happen if I accomplish nothing, help no one, find myself to be sad and alone?

And that is where Lim’s assurances about uncertainty come in. There is nothing that I can do right now to know the answer to any of those questions. And it is incredibly uncomfortable. It hurts in a soul-shaking way that makes my ribcage feel like jelly. My instinctual response is to run to some job, some idea, and hold onto it as fast as I can– anything to keep myself from not knowing. But that is exactly the point isn’t it? There is absolutely no way to know, even if you think you know, and embracing that within yourself is probably the best thing you can do to ensure that you will, in some small way, be happy with your life in the future.

Remember, happiness means allowing uncertainty to live inside of you. Peace comes only when we finally accept that we will never be at peace. Contingency always exists. Make the best of it.

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