How Michigan taught me to live

Monday, March 16, 2020 - 5:30pm

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Design by Maggie Wiebe

My feet were up on the dashboard of the passenger seat in my roommate Kevin’s 2015 Subaru Forester. The sun was beginning to set as we drove back from Atlanta. We were listening to a crime podcast, an iced coffee by my side. We were somewhere in rural Ohio, a few hours from a return to Ann Arbor for the final semester of college, a time that is supposed to be pure, unencumbered by worry, loosely jovial. It’s the time — the last time — to live and learn before reality smacks you in the face like a stiff board.

I pulled out my phone and scrolled through Twitter and came across an article written for the University of Missouri website by Wright Thompson, one of the greatest writers on this planet. As I was reading through the piece, I came across a line that blew me away.

I read it once. Paused. Took a breath. Looked up. Then I read it a few more times:

Sometimes it feels like we spend 45 percent of our lives trying to be something, 10 percent of our lives being it and 45 percent having been it.

I thought about the prescience of reading that during my trip back up to Ann Arbor for the last round of the happiest era of my life. I thought about the call to action that phrase inadvertently makes: to live deliberately but conscientiously, to strive for more but appreciate what’s right there, to allow a healthy dose of nostalgia without letting it consume you, to appreciate who you are instead of obsessing over who — or what — you’d like to be. 

Thinking back to that moment now, there is a cruel irony in how everything has unfolded. This was supposed to be a self-reflective piece about the anxiety of constantly living in search of a destination. It was meant to be a sober confrontation of how we live our lives and what we value. I was going to delve into my personal fears about life after college, finding the right career and landing on my feet. I wanted to explore this flawed instinct we have to always set goals and how that breeds a lack of appreciation for the present. These were my primary worries no less than a week ago.

That irony is cruel because this past week we had our final moments of college ripped away from us due to the coronavirus outbreak: our last stretch of classes, our final months with friends, social gatherings, livelihoods and our graduation — all gone.

I have tears welled up in my eyes as I’m writing this. I don’t know which of my friends I’ve possibly seen for the last time. My family doesn’t get to come to the Big House and take pictures with me in my cap and gown. Instead of triumph, the best four years of my life are ending with an inauspicious, premature departure from a deserted campus, as I abide by an encouraged evacuation of a place I will always call home.

I was supposed to write this about the dichotomy of marrying our short-term aspirations with the macro visions we have for our lives. 

But sometimes, life happens.

***

I didn’t know I had anxiety until I came to college. I was dumped into a pool of 40,000 people and was told to swim, and for a while I merely treaded water. I know I’m not alone in that — if anything, that makes my experience quite consistent with the student body.

I suppose that discomfort teaches you how to find yourself. That’s the only way to discover who you are. We must venture into that big, bold unknown to emerge a more complete person. 

These idealistic cliches are both true and supremely unhelpful for a lonely freshman searching for purpose. We’re told this romantic tale about what college was supposed to be and so I grew increasingly frustrated by the stagnation of my personal growth. Why isn’t this what it needs to be? My brain became flooded with thoughts and doubts and confusion, and that began to cripple me. 

I came to the University of Michigan knowing one person on campus, and even he was relatively new to my life. I didn’t know what I wanted to study or what I wanted to become. Having grown up in small, tight-knit communities all my life, I secretly harbored fears that I wouldn’t cut it outside those bubbles. I joined a fraternity to quell some of the lurking social anxiety I wasn’t truly ready to confront and I worried that Greek life would change who I was. I missed home. I longed, quietly and unassumingly, for the comforts of what I knew.

It feels peculiar, then, to be writing this next to my girlfriend and my four-year roommate in an off-campus coffee shop — completely heartbroken that, three and a half years later, it’s over. Just like that, it’s over. The people, the places, the city that made this the best four years of my life. All of it now lurks as a past tense in the narrative of my life. 

Nostalgia is healthy. But man, I just wasn’t ready for it yet.

Thompson’s words pierced me on that drive. They still do. I worry that as my peers and I strive for these high-achieving, high-minded lives, we miss the forest for the trees. 

We miss the days we spent hanging out on the couch watching “The Bachelor” over a few beers. We miss the evenings in the library spent cracking jokes instead of studying. We miss the nights spent at 420 Maynard St., talking about life and University of Michigan sports and everything and nothing at all. We’d lose track of how many games of euchre we’d played and pretended to bemoan waking up early for our 8:30 a.m. classes the next day, as if we weren’t eager to do the same thing the very next night. We miss the road trips to far-off Big Ten cities, driving through the night as we played the most obscure music in our Spotify library — then stealing some dumb prop from the bowels of a football stadium and carrying it to the rental car like a goddamn trophy. We miss the meals shared. We miss the nights out. We miss those first days of spring after a long winter, the first day we get the “all-clear” to wear shorts. And we’d take the grill out of the garage. We’d play music and toss a football. We didn't have a care in the world.

Instead, we strain over internships and jobs. We complain about drama with friends. We bitch and moan and stress. Anything to get the grade. Anything to keep moving in a direction we’re told is “forward.” We get so bogged down in the stressors of a life we know to be brutally unpredictable.

Nothing is a better reminder of that fragility than a global pandemic taking over the world, upending our daily lives and threatening our health. The past few days have forced a kind of reflection I wasn’t prepared for. I’m sure many of my fellow seniors would say the same.

I don’t want to spend 45 percent of my life trying to be something and the other 45 percent having been something. But in order to spend 100 percent of our lives being ourselves, we have to become comfortable with the imperfections and incongruities life will bring. We have to dare to live optimistically and without fear. In this long journey of life, we have to find the beauty in the ordinary.

I wish I could say I felt ready.