This column was published as part of the Commencement Issue for the Class of 2015.
Earlier this year, I tried to make “Utopia” a thing. A few friends and I adopted the word as something of a catchphrase for senior year and all of its promised glory. We learned about the fictional place in our Utopia seminar and proceeded to misuse the proper noun to describe any aspect of our lives.
Utopia became the relief after turning in a paper, the act of floating through the YUAG, the acknowledgment of any weather that wasn’t miserable. Utopia was my response when people asked me what sleep felt like after I retired as editor of the News. It was a nod of approval, a sign of contentment, a hashtag.
The label became more than English-major humor. It served not only as a reminder of how fortunate we are at Yale, but also as a consciously ironic reminder that we were exaggerating Yale’s perfection.
Utopia, by definition, isn’t real. Sir Thomas More made up the word for the fictional perfect place in his book, “Utopia.” The name is a contradiction — at once resembling the Greek “Eutopia,” meaning “good place,” and “Outopia,” meaning “no place.”
Utopia is nowhere, and More’s 16th century sense of irony still holds up today. As aware as we are of this truth at Yale, I get the sense we cannot help but feel a collective anxiety of the perfect.
I don’t mean everyone agonizes over the smallest flaws. College has taught me not to sweat the small stuff, such as when I accidentally spelled “Utopia” with a ‘y’ in the first line of my first paper for the aforementioned seminar (a seminar that was literally named “Utopia”). Professor John Rogers either felt too much compassion or secondhand shame to comment. Let the flawless spelling in this column be proof that I learned from my mistake.
But we’ve felt this pressure to get the most out of Yale, to do it right. The perfect college experience has loomed over us as a remnant of history, in the form of the stereotypical, well-rounded Yale student who thrives equally in the classroom and at Woads. We are told by opaque rankings that we are the happiest college students; the pressure is on us not to let Newsweek down. We see others balance work and sleep and going out almost effortlessly; we resent them a bit, but the pressure rises.
There is satisfaction in having clear goals and reaching them, sure, but this notion of the perfect Yale is as elusive as Utopia. Yet it lingers, manifesting itself in pangs of self-doubt and fears of failure. When it holds us back, this perfect is the enemy of the good.
Though when our lives are contained within stone walls and gated courtyards, the perfect seems almost attainable. We can gauge our own success using Yale’s convenient metrics: prizes, club positions, grade point average, even Feb Club All-Star status.
This will soon change. When we set out into the world tomorrow, diplomas (hopefully) in hand, we are leaving behind Yale’s perfect. And in the real world, there is no universal perfect, no single Utopia.
This may feel like losing a compass. Without distributional requirements, who’s to say if we’re on the right path? We won’t receive grades for our career choices. There will be no deadlines for achieving happiness.
Tempting as it may be, I don’t think we should try to correct that disorientation. We won’t be able to find that constant-as-the-Northern-star measure of success to lead us through life. But if we give up our fantasies of achieving perfection, of being just right, we are free to pursue a goodness that does not require validation.
Maybe this is my own rationalization for not having it all figured out. But I’m pretty excited to move to a different city and find new, real-world Utopias. The Utopias in writing and meeting new people and living on my own. But also the Utopias in dental coverage, or stabilized rent.
And whatever our notions of perfect, the good we’ve found at Yale is real. The Utopia is in what we’ve learned, and whom we’ve come to love. That’s the Good Place that will stay with us; it’s the No Place that we cannot leave behind.
Julia Zorthian is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. She was Editor in Chief on the Managing Board of 2015.