Today, I am sore from moving in many freshmen who overpacked in an attempt to cram their lives into a small dorm room. I have this problem of having a will and determination to help that is much greater than my actual muscular capacity to carry things, which means a lot of sweat and sheer exhaustion at the end of my four-hour shift.
In the casual chit-chat with the parents of freshmen (all slightly stressed and trying to pretend they weren’t), it often came up that I’m a senior this year. Almost all of them asked me something along the lines of, “So, what wisdom do you have to share?” or “What’s something you wish you would have known as a freshman?”
And I blurted out something mundane and trivial about the importance of not getting overcommitted or the best time to do laundry or how to open the English Hall mailboxes.
This is what I really want to say: during your four years at college, it’s helpful to pretend you’re about to die.
I am not talking about YOLO here (“You Only Live Once,” for those of you who are fortunate enough to miss this ridiculous catchphrase that I hope meets the fate of legwarmers and Furbies.) That’s usually just a shallow excuse to do something stupid or excessive that you probably would have done anyway but want to tack on a justification that sounds like “carpe diem” but isn’t as old fashioned or as Latin.
When we really start thinking about death and what we’d do if we were about to die, it’s always about the things that matter: God, family, friends, legacy, looking back on your life and being content.
Most of us, including me, are not very good about remembering this on a daily basis, which explains why our priorities aren’t often the things that matter. This is why my favorite Thoreau saying is “Most men live lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.”
Quiet desperation can take many forms. You can see it in the lonely lives: the blank cubicle with nothing to pin on the walls, the habitual clicking through the hundred TV channels with nothing on, the relatives with nothing to say at the funeral. But you can also see it in the crowded lives, the ones packed with thrill rides and high society and corporate ladders and the glitter and glamour of a thousand New Year’s celebrations where expectations are high and nagging doubts are pushed away.
I think college students can be quietly desperate too, although on a smaller scale, because you’re shrinking a lifetime down into four years. If you spend all your time chasing things that don’t matter, or put something else before God, or push people away, it may not be an obvious emptiness like the examples above. But when you get to your senior year, you will feel desperate—desperate to change things, to start over, to do things differently.
A quietly desperate four years in college ends in regret. And, although it’s often not this dramatic, it still hits me with the same emotional power as dying with the song still in you.
Sometimes I have the opposite problem. Facing my senior year, I want to be loudly desperate, running up and down the street shouting, “I don’t have enough time!” or just refusing to say goodbyes and chaining myself down to avoid change.
But other times, I fall into the quiet desperation trap, living as a decent Christian, being polite and mildly friendly to people around me, doing what I feel others require of me, following the rules, coloring within the lines.
That’s life. But it’s not abundant life, which is the glorious opposite of quiet desperation.
So that’s my goal this year: find abundant life, which is somewhere in between a resigned, halfhearted goodbye to college and a panicked frenzy to accomplish more before I leave. That’s my song, and I’m going to sing it loudly.
Thinking about running out of time, of leaving people behind after I graduate and having to evaluate what I did here is hard. I do not like it. But it reminds me of what’s really important.
And sometime, maybe I’ll share that with a freshman when she’s not handing me a crate full of office supplies and shoe organizers.