I’ve always wondered why there are so many movies about the end of high school, yet so few about the end of college. “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” “Superbad” and “Lady Bird,” to name a few of my favorites, celebrate their protagonists’ excitement about their impending coming-of-age college experience. Senior year of college, I recently realized, is a subject far less suited for a blockbuster comedy. Unlike the prescribed path of intellectual exploration and ready-made group of new friends awaiting high school graduates, college seniors face the overwhelming anxiety of stepping into an uncertain future.
No matter who you are —or maybe you’re Wonder Woman, I don’t know— you have probably experienced stress from hearing about others’ futures, whether it’s friends telling you about their return offers to investment banks, emails about classmates winning prestigious scholarships or listening to your roommate drone on about applying to medical school. You’ve probably also found yourself the perpetrator of that stress —my friends are definitely tired of hearing about my LSAT prep. Our constant planning for the future comes with steep costs: For me, it means canceling on friends at the last minute, shelving my sketchbook and camera and missing out on spontaneous adventures. You know it’s real when your mom is urging you to stop sending work emails and go to Lollapalooza. As John Lennon once sang, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”
We live in a culture that bestows respect on those with plans; to have a plan is to have purpose, resolve and forethought. We have been built for lives focused on the next step: nursery to elementary to high school to college; internship to full-time job. These safety nets can be restrictive, but they are also secure. Enmeshed in their protection, the anxiety of uncertainty fades away. At the end of our Yale careers, we will have earned a degree at one of the best universities in the world. But for many of us, that no longer feels like enough. Before we shake University President Peter Salovey’s hand in May, it seems that we also need to know exactly what is next, right now.
For the first 21 years of my life, that strict structure guided me in every way. While I may have developed a solid resume, taken rigorous courses and formed important connections, as I reach the beginning of my senior year, I realize that I have seldom grappled with the discomfort of an uncertain future. Which reminds me: there is a Blockbuster comedy about the end of college, even if it’s not set on the last day of class: “Reality Bites.” In this Generation X classic, valedictorian Lelaina Pierce, portrayed by Winona Ryder, finds herself floundering for the first time as she attempts to live an adult life. Rudely awakened by the transition from the shelter of pre-adulthood to the harsh reality of the working world, she begins filming a documentary about her experience. In doing so, she finally lets go of her need for control in a gas station convenience store, getting down to “My Sharona.” While some regard “Reality Bites” as a self-indulgent anthem for slackers, I found the movie to be a pivotal lesson about the importance of grappling with uncertainty: Most of us could stand to embrace it, at least long enough for an impromptu dance party.
We can keep pretending that we are comfortable with the unknowability that lies ahead, or we can just admit to one another that we all have anxiety about what the future holds. You can learn almost anything at Yale, but there’s no course on how to live with the discomfort of not knowing what’s next. That discomfort goes hand in hand with the deeper fear of not knowing what to do when there is nothing to do. As Yalies, the thought of a blank Google Calendar is as terrifying as the thought of Durfee’s running out of chicken tenders. For me and many others, the fear of the unknown can lead us to reflexively focus on the future rather than enjoying the present. But anxiety about the future, even if it’s inevitable, doesn’t need to be all-consuming. So if you’re contemplating going to Woads this Wednesday but stressing about an application that isn’t due Thursday, just go. If you have the impulse to build a giant pillow fort, do it. And the next time you’re at Gheav and they’re playing anything as catchy as “My Sharona,” take a minute to bust a move.
Rebecca Finley is a senior in Silliman College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .