Lawrence: Songs of time and change

Now at the end of my time at Yale, I’ve thought back to a lunch in Venice I enjoyed with friends in the Yale Glee Club while we were on concert tour after my sophomore year. As we talked, our conversation came to childhood. One friend observed that in childhood, gifts were things, like toys; but now, gifts are experiences, like a dinner or concert with friends. The difference: An experience is more meaningful, and brings a deeper joy. But a thing exists forever. An experience ends, irretrievably.

We didn’t realize at the time that our lunch in Venice was itself irretrievable. Soon, we seniors will find even college irretrievable.

Why are experiences temporary?

One answer would be raw science. Each second passes. That’s what seconds do best. The only way to stop time would be to make the earth move at light-speed (a pretty hard feat for a humanities major like me).

But I propose another explanation: Through experiences, we learn more about what life is like, what people are like, and what we stand for — and thus, though we stay ourselves, we become new versions of ourselves. We become people who are ready for that experience to be past. Times change because we change.

This is not exclusively bad news. The capacity to change is a blessing. Seniors, can you imagine being a freshman again? Freshmen, can you imagine going back to high school? All that we learned through doing the things we did in those years means we could never do those things again — and would not want to. Furthermore, we are glad to have new convictions. Even with our oldest convictions, we have new reasons for them, and new ways to act on them, after seeing them challenged, and after applying them to new situations.

We are caught in a poignant paradox. We are ready to revel in the benefits of time’s passage: new adventures, our changing. But how can we heal its greatest pain: leaving a place we call home?

Thankfully, we have advice, from a source that is deeply ours: the Yale songs.

Open the Yale songbook, and you will find lines like: “Welcome the time, my friends / We meet again”; or, “Time and change shall naught avail / To break the friendships formed at Yale”; or, in cheekily describing graduation, “And then into the world we’ll come / We’ve made good friends, and studied … some.”

Yale songs reveal two things that are immune to time’s passage: love, and memories of it.

But these values, though easy to name, are hard to live by.

Our culture too often subordinates love to achievement. Achievement can be beautiful, if it is for the sake of enriching each other’s minds and improving our world. But as pressure mounts to appear perpetually high-achieving, something perverse happens: What becomes rewarded is achievement for the sake of looking impressive. Society’s incentives too often lure us into thinking that if an experience cannot win us credit — if we cannot explain it easily on our résumés, and at parties — it is inefficient.

As time passes, these incentives and allures double-cross us. If the past year’s economic collapse has taught us anything, it is that self-aggrandizement disguised as self-fulfillment does not even secure wealth and career — let alone relationships and memories that mean something. Our culture sold us a fantasy of success built on falseness. Wall Street trumped up prestigiously abstruse yet worthless financial instruments, rather than less-flashy things of genuine worth. So too, the culture encouraged us to seek prestigious résumés, rather than small, genuine moments and acts of worthwhile living. (Often, the reward was lucrative jobs managing those very securities.)

Now, this culture has shattered. As our class becomes the first to graduate into the world amid this wreckage, and as our generation is called on to repair it, our challenge is to do not what makes us look good, but what is, in fact, good.

We know what these things are: staying up late with a friend, enjoying each other’s company, or helping one another through trauma, even when the timing is inconvenient; listening to music; making friends with the neighboring stranger on an airplane; making room, amid prestigious jobs, for public interest work; accepting pay cuts before letting a colleague get fired; the simple gladness of making someone happy.

If we live this way, we both enjoy the benefits of time’s passage and defy its pains. We still have the capacity to change — indeed, more so. Only subtle, deeply good experiences help us decide what we stand for. We revel in true friendships — the kind that, as Yale’s songs say, “time and change shall naught avail / to break.”

Lastly, living this way fills our lives with sublime moments, whose memories will last through time, and testify that we spent our time the way we want to remember spending it.

Noah Lawrence is a senior in Saybrook College and a former staff columnist for the News.

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