Coming home is always a mixed bag frequently full of boisterous relatives, warm nights on the couch with parents and time to reflect while briefly outside of the college rat race mentality. But it’s a mixed bag because it also means lying in bed, staring at the ceiling and thinking, “How many more days like this will I have?” What if Metro North derails tomorrow or there’s a gunman on campus — and the thin balloon of invincibility is popped? What if something happens to my parents? Who will I call to feel safe? Not just comforted, but safe.
Gratitude for each day is an ideal, at least in my own case, very inconsistently practiced. But the gratitude that rushes in at home during nights like those isn’t just plain gratitude. It comes with a generous burst of dread. Dread because precious moments are so short, and once you realize you’re in the middle of one, even shorter. I’d give a lot to take this awareness away and to live in the moment again the way kids do, when the “big picture” meant Arthur at 4 p.m., not thinking about internships, plans for after graduation, marriage and the possibility of being alone.
But being at Yale, you’ve got to put this wistful mood aside. There are papers to write and goals to make. You shelve your vulnerability far away and focus on running the race; when you need a break (but can’t have one long enough when each day feels shorter and shorter, daylight savings time or not), it’s off to Toad’s we go. Pause, rewind, repeat. Each time, we get a little more impatient and a little harder on the inside.
But on the thirtieth time you encounter the bearded man who paces up and down Chapel Street, occasionally asking for money, something happens. You’re sitting in Starbucks with a professor, and the bearded man comes in. The professor says, “Hey man! Want some coffee?” He stops to say he’s doing just fine, a cup of coffee would be great, thanks. He asks who I am. “Oh, just one of my students!” When he leaves, the professor explains that he’s a regular at his church. And no matter how little the man has, he always puts something in the collection basket. I bring the conversation back to where it was — some obscure book theme that now seems pathetically trivial — hoping he doesn’t notice as I pretend to look at the British Art Museum display and wipe the moisture from the corner of my eye.
And then there’s the day full of missteps, when you come back to your room and your ritualistic online news browsing is interrupted by wandering thoughts about that unpleasant look from someone in section, the friend you’ve neglected, the grandmother you haven’t called in a month. You catch yourself, and you think, “No! No time for these thoughts! Save it for break.” And then, on Facebook, that picture of the pope kissing a terrifyingly disfigured man pops up. He is huddled in the pope’s embrace. The cynic, the rat racer on your left shoulder smirks: “What a great PR stunt!” But then you keep looking. The man looks awful. It’s the type of thing that might make you cross the street if you saw it in person.
And then you realize — you just thought of him as a “thing.” The balloon of invincibility is popped. You’re glad your roommate isn’t home, because your shirt quickly becomes damp from drying your eyes and you don’t want him to think you were doing anything involving bodily fluids — especially crying. And in that moment, you love the pope, a better man than you can ever imagine you’ll be.
In these moments, and countless others like it, our feelings are exposed to everyone — and most of all, to ourselves. What’s unsettling in all these moments is the possibility that not everything is a construct, that maybe there are things, including untapped energies within us, that point to the transcendent — that maybe some meaning was, and is, and will always be there long after we’re gone. It’s almost as if, even in our world, we’re still haunted, to paraphrase Flannery O’Connor, by the suspicion that we’re here for an actual reason, and that reason is equally true for all of us, whether or not we believe in it.
The thanks we give on Thanksgiving comes and goes. It’s already mostly gone, in fact. But we’re still here, operating in our broken world as our broken selves. But our lives are filled with moments like these when, if we only stop to listen, the ineffable person inside is asking, however faintly: “Remember me?”
John Aroutiounian is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College. His columns run on alternate Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.