Around this time of the year, students of the graduating class acquire a sheen of otherworldly beauty, and one can pick them out on Cross Campus as easily as daffodils from grass. Their gait, their laughter, their generosity in giving out used furniture seem almost angelic. To these beings, the days of the week have lost all distinction to become one luminous hour.
Dear seniors, you will remember the next few weeks with surprising clarity. The memories will bring you joy for years to come, as you wait for your flight in strange cities, as you dine alone at night in your Manhattan studio.
Many of you will leave college as I did, believing that you will change the world, but you will soon discover that the truth is the reverse. The world will change you. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it can be frightening. You may feel that your liberal ideals are incompatible with your unfulfilling job. You will learn that people will judge you not by the depth of your intellect, but by how well you accomplish the boring tasks set out for you. You may realize that you are becoming more and more like the average adult, someone you swore you would not become.
I experienced all of the above. My struggles with life after college continue to this day, and their final verdicts seem as uncertain as the planetary status of Pluto. But these struggles have not killed me, and what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger (as Kanye once said). I share my story in hope that you will remember some of these words and find solace that you will not be alone in the transition to a phase of life called adulthood.
I first sensed something was wrong three years ago, during my own senior spring at Stanford. What had shattered my utopia then was the sinking of a ship that was carrying 325 high school students off the coast of Korea. Two-hundred and ninety-five were trapped inside the cabins and drowned. Watching the news live from the manicured lawn of my co-op, I felt deceived. In my classes, I had been taught that the world was a playground for the intellect. The day before, we had been talking about uploading a human brain onto a computer to achieve immortality. But the world was a place where 300 kids had drowned for no reason. I felt powerless in my lawn-chair while the final text messages of the victims bubbled out of the ship with their last breaths. I felt sick.
I wondered what college had taught me, whether it had only given a false brilliance to life that separated me from the rest of the world. It had taught me Shakespeare and CRISPR but had not taught me hunger. By the end of the week, I came to the difficult conclusion that college was a virtual reality: the purpose of higher education was not to prepare you for life, but to show you what the world could be in the best possible circumstances, a theory that must be tested against the hard data of the world beyond Palm Drive.
Even during the senior dinner on the Quad, when students are made to feel as if they’re on Mount Olympus, I tried not to forget that the patio heaters and bottle service were akin to the great feast given to the convict before his execution. Quickly drunk, I told my friends at the table that we were going to be exiled from Stanford, but like Prometheus, will bring fire to places where there is no sun, where 40 mph snowstorms numb your nose until it falls off your face.
So I came to Yale.
It is 6:30 a.m. in February. The sun is just above the horizon, casting a colorless light that carves the skyline of New Haven against the night. I am watching this from the staircase on the 14th floor of Smilow Cancer Hospital. This glass-covered stairway descends along the northeast corner of the Smilow building and offers a panoramic view of New Haven. I sit on the stairs with some apple juice I stole from the PATIENT-ONLY fridge in the nutrition room. Bright-eyed cars arrive and exit the six lanes of Oak Street Connector. The red warning lights along the coast pulse at a steady rate of 30 bpm. I take my juicebox, punch it with a straw and take my hit of glucose.
The 14th floor is where gynecological cancer patients are hospitalized. End-stage ovarian cancer kills by obstructing the bowel, causing patients to vomit their feces until they starve to death. This fact does not move me at all. I am only concerned about the three surgeries I will have to scrub into today, where my primary job is to not be in the way of the attending and the resident. Having accomplished my first job, my secondary job is to cut the sutures (“Not too short, not too long”), and to attempt a couple stitches at the end to close the skin if I am lucky. I do not care though. I’ve been up since 5 a.m. I just want to go home and sleep.
As the sun breaks free of the ocean, the light deepens into the color of egg yolk, and the shadow-speckled spires of Yale emerge out of darkness like an unearthed ruin. Looking at this vista, I ask myself a question:
Will I ever change the world?
Will I ever become the person I set out to become?
Within months after entering medical school, I realized that professional school is fundamentally different from college. Education is no longer about satisfying intellectual curiosity, but about mastering a set of specialized skills to become a useful member of society. As in a medieval guild, every initiate enters an individual but exits an MD.
For me, the process was painful. I felt like a grain of wheat being shelled, ground, pressed and bleached into Wonderbread. Having gone through college with lines from Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” and Thoreau’s “Walden” etched onto my heart, I found it difficult to accept that I had no choice in my coursework, let alone in the way of my life for the next seven to 10 years. Marching through hallways smelling of urine, my stethoscope sliding off my neck and my eyes desperately glued on the resident, who moves at an inhuman speed, I lost my sense of direction.
I confess: I was never sure I wanted to be a doctor. Like many people who enter medicine, I was driven to succeed. I had high tolerance for delayed gratification, and I was good at taking tests. Science seemed boring at times and most medical research conducted for the sake of tenure, but being a doctor seemed romantic. The flight attendant’s announcement looking for medical personnel would always make my heart race. I was going to save lives, I told myself. Volunteer for Doctors without Borders. CPR children back to life in war-torn countries. Revive cancer patients like Lazarus from his grave.
Looking back, I was as naive as a high school senior who signs up to be a security guard after watching “007.” Entering my clinical clerkships, I was unprepared to face the underside of medicine: the inefficiency of healthcare, the inevitable failure of our best treatments and the grueling monotony of hospital life. It was especially difficult to accept that medicine, like any other job, was a business of making a living. I came to realize that it was hard to remain passionate about something you do all day every day, even if it was saving lives.
If the business of saving lives gets tedious, how unbearably boring are other jobs? Talking to friends outside of medicine, I have come to believe that disillusionment is common to many fields. You graduate summa cum laude from Yale, and they have you making photocopies of the wine list. We have entered these fields wanting to change the world and have found that it is the world that changes us. Your liberal arts education will not fix the broken copier. We sit on the stairs wondering whether we will ever become the person we aspired to be. We learn that it will be decades until we climb to a position of power to make a sizable impact. You worry you may not have a soul by then. You begin to fear that your life will be summarized by a two-page resume.
At the intersection of Dwight and Chapel, where I live, stands St. Paul’s Union Church. On the side facing Dwight Street, there is a sign, the kind they use in old movie theaters with movable letters, that spell out a monthly message for the nonbelievers. The two liners are usually word plays aimed to guilt-trip people into faith, something I will chuckle about on my walk to Stop & Shop. But in January, I stopped to read the sign. The message read:
ONE DAY I WILL BE
WHAT I AM BECOMING
What am I becoming?
I am becoming an adult. There must be some good in that. Despite how terrible adulthood sounds, cars fill up I-95 every morning. Fueled by Dunkin Donuts, adults march on with life. How do they persist?
Humans are adaptable animals. Although I spend 12 hours a day at the hospital, there are still the other 12 hours. Minus seven hours of sleep, I have five sacrosanct hours that are mine. You learn to suck the marrow out of these hours. They will sustain you through your 9 to 5 or 6 to 6 as a cactus survives a month on an hour of rain.
Despite what you were told in college, you will learn that it is okay to not be passionate about everything you do, including your job. Despite its monstrous share of the pie chart of time, you do not need to assign it a value numerically equivalent to its area. You will learn to conduct your life separately from your work. And for many of you, your lives outside work will be more important than your jobs.
For example, you might get married. Believe it or not, I am engaged. Last year, on a Sunday morning, I stood in the middle of Old Campus, where all the diagonals intersect haphazardly into a skewed rectangle. I knelt there and asked a girl to marry me.
To my relief and to the relief of the Chinese tourists watching the scene, she said yes.
Marriage, partnership, pair-bonding, whatever you call it, is a humbling experience. You come to understand that, despite the subjective supremacy of your ego, you are only one in a multitude of consciousness. Life no longer is an object of study, as the humanities teach us, but a shared relic irreducible to any metaphor. Simple truths replace existential dilemmas. The purpose of life suddenly seems clear, biologically clear. In place of imagination, comes instinct. Love, you realize, is a primitive feeling mediated by the limbic system, a kind of temperature even lizards and fish experience.
Getting out of bed at dawn, I search for my glasses on the nightstand and touch her hand. I withdraw my hand and stand in the dark.
And I am not alone in the dark.
Throughout this process, I have come to understand my father. Seeing him come home from work, watch the news then go to bed, I had assumed that he was a man without dreams. In his blank stare at the TV screen, I now fathom his inventory of relinquished dreams. Penguins that jump off cliffs into the ocean to feed their young are not driven by stupidity. Soon, my father will be 60 years old. I once saw a picture of him at his college graduation. It was strange to see him at my age. The young man looked like me.
Time is ticking: the sense of invulnerability wanes after 23. The body breaks down in negligible but recognizable bits. Two summers ago, the fingernail of my thumb split down the middle, and it will not heal. Life events occur on a Poisson distribution, and the chance of every event approaches one with enough time. The things that you thought would never happen to you will happen to you.
Late mornings, in the second-floor men’s locker room at Payne Whitney, old men look at themselves in the mirrors, combing the hair that is left. I imagine their young bodies. I imagine my body in 50 years. I am beginning to understand Prufrock and the despair of the line: “I do not think that they will sing to me.”
Adulthood is not tragic, at least not yet. The happiness of adulthood is not as intoxicating as the rapture of youth, but is perhaps more valuable because it is not narcissistic and thus can be truly shared. After doing the dishes, my fiancee and I sit on the couch with nothing but the Christmas lights on, listening to the sound of cars of Chapel Street. We sit there with the long day finished, our shapes reflected on the window, dark masses surrounded by speckles of light inside a room of no great size. And I think, This is enough.
But something pricks me from inside. The question: Will I ever change the world. I remember what I had aspired to be three years ago: a hero like Hercules or Prometheus. I’ve arrived now to the conclusion that I have neither superpowers nor a divine message. I am simply a passenger on this ship called Earth, as mortal as the 295 who died inside Ship Sewol. Awake to the true dimensions of life, I feel like Gulliver in the land of giants. It will have to be my bone against the concrete, and with all my human power, maybe I will move it by a millionth of an inch during my lifetime.
Perspective does not change fact. There are still people underwater waiting to be rescued, breathing their last as I write this and you read these words. Nonetheless, I will go to sleep in peace tonight. Tomorrow, you will dance away the spring. And next year, you will be sitting on a staircase wondering whether you will ever change the world. Do not despair. You are not expected to save humanity.
Be kind. Be happy. That is all that is required of you.
And one day, you will be
What you are becoming.
Contact Wyatt Hong at email@example.com .