Life After College: (Finally) Asking the Big Questions
In the months before Commencement, “I don’t think I’m ready for ‘real’ life,” was a common confession among us graduating seniors. Accompanied by the requisite finger flexing around “real” and often a nervous laugh, the admission allowed fear of the unknown to be boxed neatly in terms we had agreed upon. Our ironic tone made the air quotes redundant, but we wanted to be sure our listeners knew we weren’t stupid: obviously post-grad life couldn’t be more of-fact — more in-the-flesh real — than life was at the moment.
But as a recent graduate, I suggest we were getting at something deep, and potentially very scary, in our trite line about the unknown future.
College — and high school for that matter — provided a certain structure I wouldn’t have thought I would miss. And yet I find myself missing the very tests, papers, projects, quizzes, and homework I’d complain about in school: I miss having deadlines to meet every few days. Deadlines made life seem meaningful. Probably more accurately, they precluded me from deliberating over life’s meaning (or — scary — lack thereof?). I didn’t have time to ponder the Big Questions — Is There Purpose? Is There A God? — because I needed to study for a test the next day or do research for a paper due that week. In philosophy or English classes that dealt with the Big Questions (hereafter abbreviated the BQs), the academic setting tempered the answer-me-now quality that marks these same questions after graduation.
Most often, though, I experience the BQs as a feeling — a gnawing feeling — more than as distinct and specific philosophical queries. Common post-graduate BQs are often career-related: What should I do with my life? What does a meaningful job look like? But the feeling that accompanies these questions —at least for me — seems so much more important than a choice of profession. The questions seem to be shorthand for your good ol’ existential angst. Because, really, the question, “What should I do with my life?” depends on answers to a number of bigger questions: By what standards should I decide what to do with my life? How do I know the standards I choose aren’t inherently and totally selfish? Because where am I getting these “standards” from anyway? And, if you want to get down to it, to what extent does what I choose to do with my life even matter? Soon, these BQs become indistinguishable from each other: they blend into a general feeling of restlessness, confusion — even despair.
Out of school, working mostly at restaurants (oh, the shame), the BQs seem to be hiding in every corner, lurking in the closet at night like the monsters of childhood. When your job consists of smiling a lot and knowing official verbiage by heart (“I’ll be sure to make a note of your request to sit by the window on your reservation. Please know window requests aren’t guaranteed, but of course, We Always Try Our Best”) it’s hard not to ask rather melodramatic questions like, “Why am I here?” The question of why-am-I-here-working-at-this-specific-place very quickly morphs into the even more melodramatic, “Why am I here . . . on Earth?” And of course, that’s a BQ if there ever was one.
So I’ve come to understand the modus operandi of the BQs: they strike hardest when you’re feeling most stranded. College’s deadlines provided temporary markers — “You Are Here” signs, in a way — that succeeded (mostly) in keeping one from feeling marooned. Of course, school was never a fail-safe protection against the BQs: I remember their pressure on gray mornings or their nagging during the dark, silent moments of the day. I imagine the force of the BQs is similar to a mid-life crisis: a questioning of the way things are, combined with speculation about the way things should be.
It’s ironic that college — a place designed to honor the BQs and center them in dialectic — is the very place where their force is the easiest to skirt. I wouldn’t be so quick to blame this paradox on college itself, though; going back to the MO of the sneaky BQs, it’s the college graduate’s stranded position that gives questions of purpose their special, haunting power. Maybe I should be grateful that as a post-graduate without a “real” job, I feel beached and stranded. Maybe making the BQs out to be predators in the dark is my defense mechanism — hiding isn’t as cowardly when you claim to be prey. Because maybe the BQs are on my side; maybe they’re allies, and I’m hiding from what can help me, like a kid refusing to go to the dentist.
Looking back, I wonder if we soon-to-be-graduates sensed there was a really big dentist appointment coming up. When we referred laughingly to our unpreparedness for “real” life, I think we were onto something. Somehow we knew college was a postponement — a four-year rain check. It was a rain check on more than loan repayments, a nine-to-five job, and taxes: it was a postponement of the Big Questions whose theoretical debate in college we knew would become very real after Commencement.
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