Empath in the Wild: Graduating

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Illustration by Amelia Cacchione

 

Monday, November 20, 2017 - 7:22pm

Recently, a panicky feeling has been lingering in the back of my mind. I’m entering the last semester of my undergraduate education, and I don't know what I want to do when that's over. I, at the very least, know what city I want to be in, but I don't have housing secured and I don't have a job secured. I've become disenchanted with my major, English — that’s to say, I've become disenchanted with literary criticism — and I don't know if I want to “be a writer” and what that might look like if I did.

I'm working through big questions like: What does it mean to be an artist? What does that look like for me, outside of school? How can I balance my own creative endeavors with engaging with my community? How will I sustain myself? Do I want to make a living off my writing, or do I want writing to be something I do outside of work? What will I do if I don’t write? What is my social responsibility in this political climate? These questions roll into one another and if I spend too long thinking about any one question, specifically, I drive myself crazy because I come up with so many more questions.

So, last weekend I was celebrating my 22nd birthday: I went out to a nice dinner on Friday and had friends over to celebrate later that night. On Saturday, it was really sunny and my boyfriend and I went out to brunch, then took a long walk through the park and made enchiladas for dinner. It was a fantastic weekend — I was surrounded by delicious food, people I love and a healthy dose of sunshine before the winter hit.

But later that night, my friend and I were hanging out and I just sort of burst into tears. All the questions I’ve been thinking about all semester poured out of me in a general frustration and panic about what I was going to do and whether anything I did mattered in the grand scheme of things, after I graduated from college.

I was expecting, from my friend sitting on the other end of the couch from me, some assurance that I would figure it out, and that I was a really determined person who could do whatever I wanted to. I wanted my friend to be there with me, wallowing in this frustration about not liking my major and not knowing what was the best thing to do after I graduate — I wanted to hear from someone else how hard it is to go out into the world.

But this is not the feedback I received. At first, I wondered why I wasn't hearing more affirmation. It was only after some of my tears dried, after I released almost all my frustrations, that my friend started speaking.

Basically, what he told me is that I would be fine and I needed to stop wallowing. Barring anything extreme happening, I'm going to graduate from the University of Michigan with a degree, lots of friends and a strong support system in my family that will support me if I need help. I’m white, and I'm a native English speaker. Because of the kind of country we live in, all of these things mean, collectively, that I'm going to be fine. Sure, maybe I won’t have the most fulfilling job ever right out of college. Sure, I may feel a little lost for a while. But in the grand scheme of things, life is likely going to be more than OK for me.

I also received a healthy reminder that, in comparison to so many others who live in the United States — people who want to go to college but haven't had the opportunity, people who immigrated here from another, non-English-speaking country, people of color and people with disabilities — I'm going to be fine. As an upper-middle-class white woman with lots of friends and family close by, I have a lot going for me.

My friend also reminded me that — although this point is smaller in scale than the ones previously mentioned — I was in the middle of my birthday weekend. I had so much to be thankful for and yet these individualistic, and kind of self-centered questions, were preventing me from inhabiting the present moment, which had so much to offer.

While I think there’s room for my individual frustrations about the uncertain nature of my life after graduation, it's also extremely important to maintain perspective. Being stuck in my head prevented me from seeing myself as part of a larger population of people in this country — and ultimately the whole world — who don't have the same kinds of opportunities and advantages.

Being in my head, preoccupied by these individualistic questions, kept me from looking outside myself to the extent that I wasn't seeing all the amazing things happening around me. If I can't fully appreciate a celebratory weekend like my birthday, then how could I go about empathizing with others on a real level? To a certain extent, I think the environment on campus facilitates selfish thinking like this. I became so future-oriented and so self-centered leading up to that night that I couldn’t look outside myself.

Since that weekend, I began seeing myself as one part of a much larger whole. Instead of dwelling on how uncertain my future is, I’ve taken concrete steps to appreciate what I have in the present: I've been doing yoga almost every day and reaching out to friends I haven’t talked to in a while, since I've been too busy trying to force myself to “figure things out.” Moving past my frustrations about my uncertain future is definitely a process, but I can say I already feel much better and much more balanced than I did a week and a half ago.