Graduating From Regret

This one comes to us from Lex Booth: With only two more weeks of undergraduate […]

Mockingbird / 5.7.14

This one comes to us from Lex Booth:

With only two more weeks of undergraduate existence left on the calendar, I can’t help but reflect on my experience in Charlottesville (and hash out some last-minute plans to squeeze out as much college as possible).  Perhaps because ”there’s still time” for me to cross a few things off the list and add a flourish or two, this exercise mostly involves lots of ‘what-if’ or ‘should have’ hypotheticals that tend to contradict each other: ‘Maybe I should have taken advantage of my classes more…’ vs. ‘Why did I spend so much time in the library and become a caffeine addict?’ – ‘Maybe I should have gone out more with friends… ’ vs. ‘Why did I spend so much time at a dingy college bar I can’t stand?’ – ‘Perhaps I should have exercised more and eaten better…’ vs. ‘#YOLO!’ – and dozens of different ‘What if I had…?’ scenarios.  (Just four years’ worth of regret from FOMO can do some interesting stuff to your head, so I can only imagine the trip from a good mid-life referendum).


Yet lurking beneath these questions is “that curious assumption” which Lewis describes in his Screwtape Letters, the famous advice book for demons. Junior demons do well to reinforce the human assumption that “my time is my own” – indeed the dominant philosophy in support of all things college. Screwtape’s advice to the junior tempter hits a little too close to home.

Let him have the feeling that he starts each day as the lawful possessor of twenty-four hours.  Let him feel as a grievous tax that portion which he has to make over to his employer [i.e. classes], and as a generous donation further which he allows to religious duties.  But what he must never be permitted to doubt is that the total from which these deductions have been made was, in some sense, his own personal birthright.

yoloCollege life accentuates this notion that “I am the center of the universe.”  Removed from the realities of family and home, there is little to suggest otherwise to most students.  Exhortations to ‘manage your time wisely’ come to us daily and with no shortage of variety.  Under the pressure of academia, professors advise us to make the most of the university’s resources while we can – “of course you should apply for the honors program!  You’ll be happy about it down the road…”  Meanwhile, nostalgic siblings and friends tell us to enjoy it while it lasts “because you will never have a time like that again.”  One biochemistry professor even bookended his class with a very personal “make the most of your time here” address: at the beginning of the semester, we learned the average number of human heartbeats over four years, and at the end, the number that had since elapsed.  The opportunity (law) to do college the right way presents itself from every angle, from the classroom to the bar, from the fellowship group to the fraternity basement.

It’s easy to forget that each of those heartbeats comes to us purely as a gift, and also quite simple to substitute the undeniable blessing of a college education with inalienable entitlement.  Surely there is a ‘right way’ to do college, but I suspect navigating that path is a matter of the heart, not the head.  Mere instruction in the Way can not divorce us from our ownership-of-time, nor will it break the spell of entitlement that college casts upon us.  Regrettably, the incurvatus in se of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” is not far from the truth of my own experience, because “the record shows” I pretty much just did things my way.

Several weeks ago, a group of hell-fire preachers showed up on campus (rather, Grounds) to condemn everyone at UVA for all of our unrepentant sins (perhaps the collegiate pretentiousness).  Of course, sexual licentiousness seemed the surest way to make it onto their naughty-list, but calling us out for narcissism might have turned a few more heads.  I had a strange urge to go and tell them, “You guys, it’s way worse than you can imagine…”


…And way better.

Sometimes, we are reminded of a story that says ‘our time’ belongs to someone else, that we have been given a gift we ultimately don’t deserve.  Our own (poor) decisions aren’t the final word because the old spell has been broken, and joy can reach us through the cracks of our entitlement and self-indulgence.  Sometimes, navel-gazing becomes too painful for us to bear; our necks become too strained and our eyes can’t bear the sight any longer.  When we ask ourselves, “Am I doing this right?”, the answer is then obvious: “No.  Ask a different question.”  Then we are forced to look around us and above us, “to break out of this tiny and tawdry theatre in which [our] own little plot is always being played, and to find [ourselves] under a freer sky” (Chesterton).  As we should have guessed beforehand, the best moments in college occur when our defenses are down and we are swept up by something bigger than ourselves.  I suspect we remember them in particular whenever we venerate the experience: “Best time of my life…”

Those hell-fire preachers were right about one thing: there is much to regret about the last four years, for me at least.  But to them I say, we are free to get college wrong because of the One who got it right, and he didn’t even graduate.

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