The Art of Saying Good-bye

The end of the semester. The last class has concluded, and only a few tests and papers stand between self and summertime. It's been easy enough to move on with most of my classes - when you commute and live off campus, you don't get a lot of opportunities to spend time with fellow students unless you expend a lot of energy on it.

But if I think about it, that's almost more sad than having to say good-bye. At least a farewell closes the door on a thing that was, even if it opens the void of the is-not.
If you have nothing to say to anyone, save perhaps the most banal of gestures like a distantly friendly nod or wave, what have you gained? Oh, you haven't lost anything in an obvious way, it's true. But consider: is it truly the case that you still have everything now that you did before?

Even if all else has remained equal, you come out the loser: you have lost the potential engendered by the presence of others in your life. And no one person is the same as another. We can never make up by quantitative accounts of one gain for one loss what has been missed and is now irretrievable. To make no gesture of friendship is to miss out on the only one of that person that will ever exist.

When I say farewell and hate having to say it, wish that I had never made the effort in the first place, I am like a miser, begrudging an expenditure from my storehouse of love as it walks away into a future distinct from my own. I am blind to the wealth that I myself have received, only losing because I fail to account for the gift of a few months' time.

This is not a loss, not in an economy of relationship. It is the kiss that seals the letter, the best kind of closure, signifying at the last that something good has happened, and I was privileged to be a part of it. The farewell is gratitude, delight, and a smile.


Twenty-Something Good-for-Nothing and Free to Fail

Just to start out with a good ol'-fashioned disclaimer, I do not view myself as a good-for-nothing. Most of the time. I mean, there are Wednesday nights around 10:20 when my three espressos and a cafe au lait have worn off and amidst the sludge that remains of my brain, all I can think is, "what the hell am I doing with my life?" I'm not convinced, however, that these are the most honest, soul-searching moments, because things tend not to look so dreary when I can assemble a little perspective (and get some sleep).

My educational experience is a bit unique. After high school, I launched into two gap year programs. Then, when college plans fell through one fateful June, I moved to the Philadelphia suburbs, there to diddle away my time in community college until I was able to transfer to the University of Pennsylvania, against the discouraging words of at least one transfer adviser. [Tangent: college people are incredibly cynical and not particularly helpful. Maybe they realize that the only way you'll get anywhere in life, for the most part, is if you fight for things, so they make a resistance for you to fight against. I don't know. I just know that they're not my friends.]

All that being said, it's a little weird to be a commuting, twenty-two year old sophomore who transferred from community college and whose experiences are asymmetrical with those of the average college student by grade or age bracket. But the weirdness and awkwardness are only true of my attitude if I try to define myself relative to the normal expectations. What about when the categories fail? Then I just have to think about my goals for education and life in an entirely different way. Which is kind of fun and freeing, if a little tiring.

Just to make things more interesting, I have already determined that I have no desire to spend the rest of my days in academia. When you're a philosophy major, there aren't a whole lot of other options, or at least, none that are too appealing. So how do I explain why I'm taking philosophy? Am I just wasting my precious time in ways that are even more painful at twenty-two than they would have been at 18 or 19?

Well, no. I am still getting something out of my education, confused as it may be at times. Here are the sort of goals I've made for myself:

1) Learn to take risks. I don't have to graduate with a 4.0. I just need to maintain above a 3.75 until next Spring, if Cambridge accepts me, which leaves me a solid year and a half to mess around in the most intelligent way possible. Knowing that you don't have to reach some crazy academic standard that includes coursework in classes that are not your strongest point is really, really awesome. Because it means that you don't have to toe the line. I still do the work for the classes, but what I'm trying to get out of it can be entirely different, and I can pursue riskier tracks for assignment ideas, because ultimately, how well I do on them according to one teacher or class's standards is less important than how well I can think through them.

2) Learn how to think well, in terms of both critique and comprehension. This takes more time. Understanding a 20 page pdf worth of philosophy article makes me really, really sleepy by the time Thursday rolls around, sure, but if I don't take the time to understand the full import of what I'm taught in my cosmology class, for instance, then every hour I spend there is time wasted, and it doesn't have to be. I may not want to be an astronomer, but what I'm learning there has implications for my worldview too, and if I grasp the ideas, then I expand the variety and depth of conversations in which I can and do participate.

3) Learn how to communicate. I've been working on a study abroad application to Cambridge's Pembroke College for the past month, and it has been an exhausting series of miscommunications. It started last Fall when the secretary told me I didn't have to deal with anything until this semester (the office's internal deadline was December 1, 2012), and it kept going with notifying my academic references, working out writing samples, and such. My lesson is that good communication involves making solid goals, communicating them explicitly, and confirming that they are understood. Otherwise, I get a huge, chaotic mess. That's my usual result because I don't play well with others. I figure that if we all know what we're doing, then you're not my responsibility. There is a positive flip side that I tend not to micro-manage, which can be empowering, but it's definitely requires sensitivity to circumstances.

Confession: I'm making these goals because they're all things that I do poorly, if at all. The Cambridge example probably made that clear, but the more general problem is, freedom to fail is hard to live out. I got a B+/A- on my first two papers in my existentialism class this semester. The first one was kind of funny. I've never gotten less than an A- on a paper. I felt like I was adding a little color variety to my blue ribbon collection. And one B+ can be made up, especially when lowest grades are dropped. But the second one gave me an existential crisis. Sorry, but it does actually apply, irony aside.

See, if I define my being by the letters that I get on my assignments or my transcript, then a B+ is a serious problem. It's like sinning or something, because I haven't just gotten a lower grade, no, I've betrayed who I am. And that's just foolishness and Unsinn. I bet nobody else in the world sees me differently. Most people don't even know it happened. It's not in the least bit significant to my life. And that's when I realize that I've tied myself into completely unnecessary knots. Because if I care so much about that letter, I'm not going to take risks, because they might not pan out. I'm not going to learn how to think critically and independently, because other people's thoughts are more authoritative. Counter-intuitively, perhaps, I'm also not going to communicate when I do hit problems, because what I really need is for my professor to think that I have it all together and I know what I'm doing, even if it's not true.

Moral of the story is, I'm going to fail a lot in my life, so I might as well learn how to take the knocks now. The other moral of the story is, the fact that my life is my own means that I choose how I'm going to live it. So basically, the moral of the story really is, we're all free, so we might as well embrace it in all its gory details and just get on with the business of living.