Like every major day in my life thus far, my first day as a Yale college senior arrived with all the clamor of a single raindrop. I expected just as much. Sadness rarely follows the timelines that we ask of it.
Perhaps, I successfully pre-empted my grief. Maybe the anxiety about graduation that I carried for so long in my heart sufficiently strengthened my myocardial tissue. Perhaps you really can diffuse sorrow, spread it out over enough sentimental lucubrations and op-eds. Or maybe, I wrote the word “graduation” so many times over the past three years that it finally lost its meaning. It became an abstraction, a phonetic construct, transrational sound poetry. Cubo-futurism. Zaum.
I started my first week of senior year at Yale being disappointed in myself. Some days, it just felt like the fear seeping into the crevices of my gut was laced with something else. Other days, I’d open the folder titled “affirmations” on my desktop, and open screenshots of the kindest things professors, readers and friends have told me about my work, my writing and myself. Those days, I allowed myself to feel a modicum of pride. Until I reminded myself of all the things I could have done.
I read Joan Didion’s memoir, “The Year of Magical Thinking”, earlier this summer. I’ve always been moved by Didion’s writing, so when people told me it was about the year in her life after her husband’s death, I was ready to tear up, to have my dreams haunted by images of true love torn apart by capricious fate. I didn’t expect Didion’s psychological hypotheses, her notion of “magical thinking”, to haunt me as much as they did.
It turns out that I’ve spent the last year of my life hiding in my imagination. Just as Didion refused to give away her late husband’s shoes, nourishing the hope that he would need it when he came back, I, too, have nourished the notion that the last three years of my life at Yale are subject to change. I stared in the face of time and denied its direction. I tried to make the river run upstream.
I first noticed it at the end of my junior year. It was the first time I’d ever asked myself what my time at Yale amounts to and came up short. For the first time, learning, growth, friendship, joy were insufficient answers. Hollow abstractions that point to a lack of something tangible.
It started as a series of “whats?” but snowballed into “what if’s?” What if I’d auditioned for “Natasha, Pierre and The Great Comet of 1812?” What if I’d turned the pipe dream of being in a college production into a reason to work on my pipes. Well, I’m not a very good singer. What if I’d joined the children’s choir in Bombay. My mum took me for singing lessons when I was eight. What if I’d stuck to them? Then I’d be like all the fictional people I’m comparing myself to in my head. I had the musical talent to be a classical pianist. I just didn’t have the drive to be anything more.
What if I hadn’t taken that class on Romanticism? There was nothing that wrong with it, but because of it, I might never be able to take an art history class with Tim Barringer. And even if I do, it won’t be taught at the Yale Center for British Art. What kind of person claims to like the humanities and leaves without taking a class that is taught at the YCBA? Perhaps the most magical thing about magical thinking is that nothing else has ever managed to demolish the palace of your self-illusions with the ease of a flicking wrist.
There’s a reason they call it a spiral. It doesn’t just start to unravel the Yale years of your life-onion. It unravels the 18 years that came before.
Though I have never managed to tame my self-critical tendencies, I cannot also help but think this is an inevitable reaction towards such an overwhelming entity as Yale. I wrote in my freshman year that we are always trying to live all the Yales, that joy at this school will remain asymptotic if we never stop striving. I admire my own foresight. It didn’t stop me from striving anyway.
I’ve described walking through Yale as strolling through paradise. Arcadia. Alternatively, as the process of observing Yale’s infinite paths collapse into the choices you make at each juncture in the road. I’d like to modify that. Yale’s possibilities never collapsed. Mine did.
Regret is a wasted emotion. I’ve known that since I was 11. The first essay I ever wrote was about regret. The regret of not picking up the calls of an aunt who loved me. I was drowning in self-doubt then. I started this year still drowning. Just in a different ocean.
How long have I been adrift at Yale, falsely convincing myself that I made all the right choices? Did I do enough? Did I love enough? Should I have confessed my feelings earlier? Was practicality an excuse for abject cowardice?
We will always be questioning ourselves. Over again, and then once more for good measure. It is a product of our conscience, a moral mechanism. Sometimes it is a bulwark against arrogance. It is often debilitating.
I know I am being impractical. I know that my time here has been worth something; in fact, that it will perhaps be the most valuable time of my life. But the intellectual tasting of life does not supersede its muscular activity. Emerson said that. I expect we’re supposed to believe him.
It helps me to know that I am not alone. In fact, it seems impossible not to question the way you’ve lived your college life on the cusp of its expiration. Is this how I’ll feel on my deathbed? Maybe this is how we choose to respond to the ineluctable grief of leaving this place. By reminding ourselves that there was so much more to be done. Others drown their sorrows in gin. A few don’t think about graduation at all. And then, there are those few people who bring up the various things they’ve done so much in conversation that you know there’s no hope for humility there.
I don’t expect if I will ever descend into the self-interrogation that I did this summer ever again. It was a novel experience for me. Perhaps the only way to resist the blight of self-annihilation is to accept that my college life could have been completely different. I could have been an economics major in Berkeley who played club spikeball. I could have been a psychology major in Trumbull who did club gymnastics. The existence of alternate lives does not necessarily etiolate the one you’ve chosen. Only you have that power. But life, too, finds a way of reminding you of the things that matter.
Last Sunday night, I stumbled out of a friend’s backyard at 8:30 pm — smiling, slightly drunk, starting to envision what my year would look like as a senior. I was headed home from a society meeting that ended earlier than I expected it to. As I walked past Harkness Tower, shrouded in darkness, I suddenly felt myself well up with a hope I had last felt as a freshman— the thrill of meeting new people, the excitement of academia, of being dazzled by ideas, the sense that as long as I was in this place, surrounded by these people, I could never be unhappy again.
Inspired by this ebullition, I called a friend I had just parted with and asked if she wanted to get drinks at Chacra. I headed home two hours later, the lingering taste of a Pisco Sour and the buzz of stimulating, meaningful conversation interlaced with brewing excitement for the suite horror movie tradition I was walking towards. I paused for a moment and sat on a bench at the New Haven Green. Without thinking too much about it, I opened my email address and turned down an on-campus job offer that I didn’t need. Then, I opened up Yale Course Search and dropped a fifth course. I hadn’t felt that happy in months. I walked the rest of the way home with a smile on my face — and with the assurance that everything would be okay.
PRADZ SAPRE is a senior in Benjamin Franklin College. His fortnightly column “Growing pains” encapsulates the difficulties of a metaphorical “growing up” within the course of a lifetime at Yale. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org