The admissions office likes to say that “Yale is best defined by the word and.” Here, you get research and sports, service and science, McKinsey and Company. Here, you can always do both, you can have it all, and that’s what makes Yale special. I think that idea is wrong, and that its wrongness is a good thing.
Sometimes, the simplest conclusions demand complicated explanations. “The Garden of the Forking Paths,” by twentieth-century Argentinian writer Jorge Louis Borges, is told from the perspective of Dr. Yu Tsun, a spy for the German army in World War I. As part of an elaborate plan to reveal the location of a British artillery supply, Tsun visits Dr. Stephan Albert, a scholar in the work of Tsun’s ancestor Ts’ui Pên, an ancient philosopher who created the long-lost “garden of the forking paths.” If that wasn’t complex enough, it turns out that this garden is not a garden at all but rather a novel, and the paths do not fork in space but in time.
Albert explains to Tsun: “Your ancestor did not think of time as absolute and uniform. He believed in an infinite series of times…This web of time — the strands of which approach one another, bifurcate, intersect or ignore each other through the centuries — embraces every possibility. We do not exist in most of them. In some you exist and not I, while in others I do, and you do not, and yet in others both of us exist.”
Graduation is a time when we are reminded both of the utter enormity of the great big web and the sheer improbability of having ended up on the strand in which all of us exist, now and here. Graduation is neither a beginning nor an end, but a junction between the strands that were and the many yet to be formed.
In short, graduation is an emotional time. Our strands — by some combination of privilege, happenstance, luck and effort — have run along each other’s for the last four years. Bound by this place, they have crossed, intertwined. Now, the wrapping comes off and the bundle of strands unravels. Not completely, of course, but apart enough to justify getting teary about it.
Reflecting on what did happen is only half of it, though. Graduation also makes apparent the near-infinite series of strands left unrealized, the paths un-travelled. This often begets regret. Regret is a dangerous thing, but it’s a natural (and sometimes useful) thing, too. To think that the majors, the friends, the experiences you ended up with were the only ones possible or desirable is naïve.
However, it’s all too easy to overvalue what you could have learned on a different strand and to undervalue what you learned from the strand you did choose. Had you taken a different path, you might know or have something you now don’t, but you’d lose something, too.
This place is stuffed with opportunity, more opportunity than even the most ambitious eighteen-to-twenty-two-year-old could exhaust. Thus, we are forced to choose, to curate our particular slice of the Yale experience. Sometimes we choose wisely. Sometimes we choose unwisely. Sometimes those choices are made for us. Sometimes we go down one path and forego another without even knowing there was a choice to be made.
Recognizing this fact — that there are always choices to be made, opportunities to take and many more to forego — is often anxiety-inducing, if not paralyzing. But there’s something beautiful about it, too.
This place is beautiful for the quantity and quality of choices it presents us with. Sure, sometimes we get and, but even the and’s come nested in a greater or. We could take only so many classes, form only so many friendships. But, if we could have had it all, would our possessions mean anything? There are no facts or skills one can learn at Yale that cannot also be learned on the internet. What makes this place special is the people we learn from and the people we learn with. If we all graduated with the same infinite (and thus identical) set of experiences, what would be the point of knowing each other, of learning together? And if we could do it all over again — and again, and again — would we ever feel ready to move on? After all, what makes the “shortest, gladdest years of life” the gladdest is that they are the shortest.
These short four years have come to an end. For worse or better, you will never be a first-year again. All but one of the paths that laid before you then have since been closed-off. A near infinite series of paths still lie before you, but you can only go down so many.
If you think you only got to experience a slice of the “Yale Experience,” then you’re correct. But a thin slice was all that was ever possible, and that slice belongs to you and you alone. Remember: no one did it all. No one has it all. After all, Yale is not and. Life is not and. Life is or. And thank God for that.
ERIC KREBS is a graduating senior in Jonathan Edwards College. He was a columnist for the News from 2018 to 2020. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org