The campus is seized with its usual furore. People are possessed with the need to complete their immediate goals: get to class. Get to the library. Read X criticism of Y text. Tackle some essay for some module before some certain date. Even their procrastination has structure. Students are chewing the cud of purchased lunches or half-heartedly swiping right on Tinder with the knowledge that they’re killing time until a deadline closes in on them.
It’s all familiar to me, and yet I’m uncomfortably divorced from it all. Due to necessity more so than choice, I’ve opted out of this year’s study and gone off books. The illness that initially demanded my attention and time has now passed for the most part, leaving me with my health and nothing on my schedule.
My situation is ostensibly enviable in the eyes of my (ex-)classmates. I’m not hampered by any real commitments nor do I feel the weight of academic pressure. They cannot see the suffocating emptiness of my days, the freedom to do anything that paralyses me.
In retrospect, I’ve never had to think particularly hard about how to spend my time up until this point. I’ve leapfrogged from one educational institution to another with a constant objective. I’ve had to pass exams, achieve grades and progress. The barometer of my success has been laid out before me in terms of numbers, awards and other quantifiable aims. The summers, though long and fraught with potential, were always easy to fill with the number of options that had been put in front of me. J1s, voluntours, au pairing in foreign countries and engaging in menial labour to fund festival tickets and nights out. As students, we’re bombarded with unit-filling activities. We’re all bound in the soft cotton wool of these wonderful, wonderful structures and yet operate under the illusion of choice.
In a state of denial, I’ve been whiling away my time as if it were one protracted, unproductive reading week. Netflix keep updating their library at an alarming rate. I’m embarrassed to admit how many TV series I’ve watched and how many pairs of sweatpants I’ve invested in. Weekdays hold no real meaning, so I struggle sometimes to remember whether it’s Tuesday or Saturday. The reality of my situation has been creeping up on me slowly, as I become more uncomfortable with my idleness. The truth of my circumstances encroaches like nightfall, dark and inevitable.
I’m simultaneously putting off doing everything and nothing. Seven months (the time between now and the new college year) doesn’t seem significant, until I realise that I am the one charged with determining how to spend that time. What do I do? Do I get a job? Should I pursue my goals? What are my goals? Isn’t there a person out there who is supposed to tell me how to live my life, and objectively determine whether I’m doing it correctly? Who is responsible for that? My parents? The government? The internet? You? I’m having a panic attack.
I’m a young woman with no transferable skills who considers making her own dentist appointments a “significant” step towards adulthood.
I can completely understand the desperation that inspires people to cut themselves off from modern conveniences and embark on forays into the wilderness. I briefly considered following in the footsteps of Christopher McCandless and Jesus, hitting the road with a backpack and a pocket knife. It boils down to a strong desire for a tabula rasa, a hope that cutting oneself off from the constant distractions of the real world will help to discover some strong intuition about one’s purpose. As someone who breaks out into a rash after prolonged periods without internet access, I can’t see this plan panning out well.
I’m a young woman with no transferable skills who considers making her own dentist appointments a “significant” step towards adulthood. I have no idea how to handle my current circumstances. I want to travel into the past and punch my younger self for not learning Mandarin or graphic design or computer programming. I’m furious, because no one prepared me for the swirling, vague abyss of my future. The idea of navigating through life on the compass of my own instinct is terrifying. The only solace I can take is that this small, controlled taster of real life will hopefully mean that I won’t be as shocked when I graduate and actually have to figure out what to do with myself.
This makes me wonder how my cohorts will fare. Reality is going to hit us all like a truck. Tertiary education attempts to seek out “self-directed” and “entrepreneurial” (hat tip to you, Prendervost) people. Yet I feel like these traits can only exist in a limited capacity when one is being herded through such a structured environment.
We aren’t given enough time or preparation to gain the self-awareness to know what we want from this world. We get pushed towards these immediate goals without anyone bothering to inform us that there’s a long term to consider. I’ve been learning for 16 years and yet still find myself in a simple situation that is at the same time devastatingly difficult. I know it may seem dramatic to claim that we have no real guidance. College hosts career fairs and have advisors on hand to help us determine how to apply our degree. The alumni network (allegedly) is there to help us forge connections that could be helpful in the future.
It’s not that I don’t know what to do with my future. I have a pretty good idea of where my interests lie and what I will and will not be happy doing. It’s that I’m coming to the point in my life (as most people my age are) in which I am only ultimately obligated towards myself, and will be the only one who can determine whether I’m content and whether I’ve been successful. Yes, I’ll need some sort of job to make ends meet. Yes, that will set up some inherent obligation. I could get promotions and work towards goals, not dissimilar to the experience I’ve had heretofore. When I’m lying awake at night though, thinking about my day and waiting for sleep to come, and I ask myself whether I’m living the best possible life, there’s only one person that can answer that question; me.
Do I even want a career? A job after college is the natural progression, in line with societal norms. However it might not make me happy. It stands to reason that there’s more than one way to live a life, more than one option to pick. What if I make the wrong choice? Will I know it’s the wrong choice? I feel the rumblings of a second panic attack.
I am existing outside the college bubble, and it hasn’t been entirely pleasant. My return to Trinity will come around before I even know it, and I am sure the bubble will embrace me again (and I it). I can’t imagine I’ll easily forget about all that waits for me post-education. This new information will either make me more inclined to embrace my experience for what it is, having seen the end in sight, or burden me with a perennial disquiet caused by knowledge of what is yet to come
I wrote this with the slightly selfish hope that I’d have an epiphany about what to do with my seven months. I haven’t, for the record. I’m just as clueless as I was when this began. I’m riding the stormy waters of the big bad world on the flotsam of an interrupted education and some half-baked ideas about who I am as a person. It remains to be seen whether I’ll return to the shores of third level with a stronger sense of self or not.