What My Commencement Speaker Failed to Mention

Post-College Life Hasn’t Exactly Been the Promised Fairytale

Grace Leuenberger / 5.18.21

Five years ago today, I graduated from college. Five years is not a terribly long time, but these particular five years have felt like some of the most significant ones of my (short) life so far. Since graduating, I’ve lived in three different cities and had five different jobs. I’ve watched friends become spouses then parents, visited them in apartments in foreign countries, and carried their boxes to fourth-floor walk-ups on scorching hot summer days. I’ve celebrated promotions and pregnancies, engagements and adoptions. I somehow survived a marathon and two presidential election cycles and golden retriever puppyhood. I’ve also heard bad diagnoses, attended the funerals of friends’ parents, buried two of my grandparents, gotten a text about the bleeding that they couldn’t stop. And I’ve sat silently while listening to stories of how hopeful hearts became broken ones. I’ve cried tears of joy and tears of despair. It’s been a full five years.

College is often viewed as a time of equipping — when the malleable minds of its youthful participants are cultivated with ideas and captivated with inspiration for what the future may hold. The tasks of academia are taken up to prepare students for life after college — whatever that may look like or wherever it may take us, or so we hope. As much as my professors tried to fill my mind with important thoughts and good books, my four years of college were never designed to prepare me entirely for what came next. Just as having car insurance doesn’t mean I am ensured that I won’t crash my car, going to college didn’t mean I would emerge from the experience ready for what would happen next. And what came next was much harder than I expected. 

“Why did no one warn me?!” I’ve asked scathingly, feeling surprised by the suffering of the last five years. At times, my awareness that my professors did not equip me with all the knowledge I needed to confront the challenges of life-after-college made me feel like I deserved a refund, or at least a chance to rant about my alma mater’s deficiencies on Twitter. One day, when I was feeling particularly frustrated by this point, I found myself looking at my bookshelf. Hemingway, Faulkner, Ralph Ellison, Marilynne Robinson, Cormac McCarthy, W. E. B. Dubois, and Flannery O’Connor line the shelves, relics from the American Literature classes I took every semester. With sudden clarity, I realized: My feeling of unpreparedness in my and my loved ones’ suffering was not because my professors had avoided talking about suffering, but because I had treated suffering as an academic abstraction — something that only happened in the books on my shelves, not to people I knew and certainly not to me.

My senior year, the final paper I wrote was an essay titled “A Good Reader is Hard to Find: A Discussion of the Readability of Flannery O’Connor for the Non-Christian Reader.” (My gosh, what a title!) In it I issued a warning against wide readership of O’Connor’s work, arguing that its grotesque nature put too much emphasis on the violence of the Cross rather than the glory of the Resurrection. I asserted that, to a non-Christian, O’Connor’s “glorification of violence” (my words) seemed more likely to turn people away from Christ rather than towards him.

While I was trying to make an edgy argument, the essay really was inspired by my distaste for the world O’Connor wrote about. I was frightened by her murderers and disgusted by her Bible salesmen. I much preferred reading about the baptism of kittens in Robinson’s Gilead to the deadly baptism in O’Connor’s The Violent Bear it Away. But as O’Connor wrote in a letter from 1955 — three years into the seven she was told she had remaining to live — “The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.” Suffering was on the syllabus, but I spent my college years rushing through the reading, trying to get to the good parts. 

In the five years that have followed graduation, I kept expecting that the story of my own post-grad life would read more like the script of a chick flick than any of the books I read in college. I had hoped that my post-grad life was to be lived in a world that didn’t scare me, didn’t hurt me, didn’t cause pain to me or anyone I loved. I would quickly learn, however, that suffering was still on the syllabus. When it became clear that the good parts of post-grad life were almost always mixed up with grief, I became bitter. “Why did no one warn me? Why did no one tell me the truth?!” Whatever else my commencement speaker foretold, they never mentioned anything remotely close to these last five years.

I pined for my college years when suffering was an abstraction, something I read about in books. To again quote O’Connor, “To expect too much is to have a sentimental view of life and this is a softness that ends in bitterness.” Years later, I’ve come to learn that if God had given me what I felt I could stomach — a life without suffering — I might have missed out on one of the most profound gifts of these last five years: the sacred opportunity to stand with my college friends in their pain. In trying to just get to the good parts, I almost missed the good part. 

I have expected both too much and too little in these last five years. I expected too much of my college — of what my professors could teach me and protect me from in my post-grad life to come. And I expected too little of God — of the tenderness of his character and the validity of his promises. While I did not expect the suffering of these last five years, it would have been a mistake to remain bitter towards my alma mater or more importantly towards God. I was and am ill-equipped for this life, but maybe that’s the point. Christians love to remind each other that “God never gives us more than we can handle!,” forgetting that Christ pleaded to God in the midst of his pain, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death!” Jesus follows this by asking his disciples, “Stay here and keep watch with me.” Though the disciples ultimately fail to do this for Jesus, Jesus does not fail to do that for us. The Ascension reminds us that though Christ is absent from our physical experience, the Spirit is always with us.

On days when our souls are overwhelmed with sorrow, a prayer from O’Connor’s journal can guide us as we cry out to God: “Give me the courage to stand the pain to get the grace, Oh Lord. Help me with this life that seems so treacherous, so disappointing.” In our treacherous and disappointing days as well as our glorious and glad ones, the Spirit keeps watch over us in all places, in all times — giving us the courage to stand in the pain and get the grace. 

Five years after graduating, and this is a lesson I am still learning: though suffering is still on the syllabus, grace is, too. It is difficult to wrap my mind around the whys and ifs and how-comes of my and my friends’ post-grad lives. But it is also astounding to think of the grace and gifts present in the pain, too. A few months ago, a college friend and I cried together while talking about a tremendous suffering one of our other friends was experiencing. Though we did not cry because of our despair; we cried because of our gratitude for the gift of having friends we met in college who stay with us, keep watch with us, stand in the pain with us, point out grace to us.

We may not always feel equipped with the right words or solutions for the suffering we encounter, but we are given the grace of each other: co-laborers with and towards Christ, guided by the Spirit. And because of this, I can agree with O’Connor when she says, “I can, with one eye squinted, take it all as a blessing.”