On my first day of college, I cried for 15 minutes in the basement of the Sharpe Refectory.
I wasn’t sure what I was crying about, exactly, but I was overwhelmed with a sense of impenetrable dread. As I swiped my way back into Keeney Quadrangle and stared at my roommate’s sleeping back, I knew: I probably wouldn’t — couldn’t — make friends here, in this dingy maze of hallways that perpetually smelled like pot. I would most likely graduate and walk through the Van Wickle Gates alone, directionless and probably still a virgin.
They have a name for this: Generalized Anxiety Disorder. It’s my dogged belief in Murphy’s Law, that anything that can go wrong inevitably will, unless, of course, my mind worries it away. I don’t know what the future holds, so my brain considers all dire possibilities to prepare for the seemingly inevitable. It’s my black dog forever chasing its tail, a vicious little monkey with cymbals clanging against the outer regions of my skull.
“Stop worrying,” well-intentioned friends prescribe. “You can’t lead your life constantly anxious. Seize the day!”
I consider this advice for about half a minute. And then dissolve into paroxysms of worry that I haven’t, in fact, enjoyed life enough. This particular neuroticism has only worsened in the past few months, as recent graduates urge me to “enjoy the little time you have left” because “you’ll regret it if you don’t.”
Have I enjoyed my time here sufficiently? Maybe I should have done more drugs. Kissed more boys! Kissed fewer boys? Exercised at that state-of-the-art gym more than once a semester. Taken more practical classes. Taken less practical classes? I’ve completely wasted my time here! Why is everyone torturing me with carpe diem?
Commencement addresses and articles tend to bore or bother me. We reduce our reflections to hokey clichés about the future: “No regrets! Follow your dreams! Don’t sell out! Or you’ll regret it! Forever!” Mindless phrases that give little guidance or comfort, as we haven’t experienced the future yet and therefore have no real advice to offer. Our future has become, if anything, more uncertain and anxiety-inducing than that first day of freshman year. Can’t we just admit we’re scared?
We’re 22. Half of us don’t have jobs and the other half question whether the positions we’ve landed really reflect our passions, our goals. For the past two decades, we’ve followed the path: four years of high school, then four years of college. Then what? Suddenly, our choices feel like they have real, permanent consequences. The Open Curriculum seemed to allow us boundless academic freedom, but somehow our options now are even more infinite and liberating — yet also daunting and constricting. We have to make choices, and we fear choosing wrong.
People, particularly anxious people, like plans. Oh, the comfort of certainty. Over the past four years, we’ve forged our Brown plans. We’ve learned how to live consistently here: the professors we love, the friends we cherish, the peers we avoid like the plague. We know that the Ratty’s gnocchi is delicious, but that we should never, ever touch the scrod. We’ve calculated the number of drinks at the Grad Center Bar it takes to get buzzed, and how many shots is too many. We know the simple things, like study spots and Blue State orders and when to expect the Naked Donut Run. Where to cry and where to have an intimate conversation. It took four years for Providence to become home. Now it’s being ripped away.
At the end, I’ve realized Brown’s biggest lesson has actually been in uncertainty. I entered school thinking I would be a doctor, and I exit with degrees in history and literary arts and loose plans to be a writer. My sophomore year, I was forced on a medical leave, which devastated me at the time, yet barring any last-minute flunking, I will graduate with honors in seven semesters. So much in my college experience has not gone according to plan, but that’s universal, right? Crap happens. We drop classes. We get dumped. Best friends fade to acquaintances. Sometimes, we even confront death.
And then I turn to that sobbing, skinnier, 18-year-old version of myself, the one who thought her college experience would be certain catastrophe. I’m not sure what I would say to comfort her. Because certain things did go horribly wrong, but never in the ways that I anxiously anticipated. I frequently made the wrong choices and suffered for them, but I don’t find myself regretting those decisions because four years later I feel like such a drastically different person. Is that a hokey cliche?
How about this, then: Uncertainty breeds possibility. We just have to have faith that, in the end, we’ll land where we’re supposed to be. And even though I know I’ll never be able to stop, my only college regret is that I spent so much time worrying at all.