Finding meaning in the age of delayed adulthood

For long stretches towards the end of high school, I imagined myself at a stoplight, waiting for my life to begin. Nothing I did seemed to matter: the papers I wrote were read, graded, and forgotten instantly; the friendships I fostered arose from proximity rather than love, and I could feel them fading with every passing week; and my job at the local library had about as much importance as a street sweeper’s on a pouring day. I remember getting a test question that asked what I would do about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I remember laughing—what could my opinion possibly matter when I couldn’t even vote?

During this time, I built up college in my mind as an entrance to the real world. Like the college students at the helm of the Civil Rights movement and Vietnam War protests, I would effect real change, lead movements I believed in. My voice would count.

But of course, college is not the real world. It is a place of learning and discovery, yes, but it is also a bubble, requiring far less independence than living on one’s own does. As Tumblr user disjunct put it in a popular post, “We’re adults, but, like…adult cats. Someone should probably take care of us, but we can sort of make it on our own.”

College protects us from the full weight of adult responsibilities, and in doing so, it limits the scope of opportunity that we would have access to as adults in the real world. A simple example of this is the fact that we have to take classes—adults not enrolled in college don’t have to take classes, but the fact that we do saves us from having to think about where we would work, live, eat, and sleep outside of school. If with great power comes great responsibility, college shows us the corollary: with limited power comes limited responsibility.

In a positive way, this limited power and responsibility give college students an unparalleled freedom to test out the ideas and ideologies they encounter. In my college career, for instance, I’ve identified as everything from a Marxist to an Ayn Rand-enthusiast with no repercussions…except, perhaps, the embarrassment of hindsight. In an effort to free myself from the trappings of capitalism and materialistic culture, I’ve gone a year without buying anything but the barest of necessities (It turns out that the experiment didn’t free me of anything; it just made me a cheapskate). I’ve exhausted friends with different visions of my future: on Monday, I’d plan a career in law, on Wednesday, I’d realize my calling as a teacher, and then by Friday, I would decide that optometry was the real money maker.

I’ve been able to experiment with different personas, going out, staying in, and ultimately discovering what made me happy. It was through these experiences that I’ve gained a better sense of self, and it’s because of the college bubble that I felt free enough to have them.

But the college bubble also has its costs. To believe that nothing I do matters—at least as an end in itself—is as frustrating as it is freeing. I want to do work of my choosing and see its effects in the larger society. Colby doesn’t fulfill this wish; the only relevance of papers and tests is to reflect what I have learned—not what I have created, invented, or imagined. As many of the most spectacular human achievements have come from young adults, it can feel like I’m wasting the most energetic years of my life producing content that even professors don’t care that much about. And while the content I create has no objective importance, it seems to matter very much that I create it, so much so that it causes an ever-present level of stress. In the real world, it would be easy to see this stress in the proper perspective; in the college bubble, it can grow to unscalable proportions. It’s hard to find meaning in stress when it’s caused by work I have not chosen, as is the case with college coursework.

On a more general level, college runs counter to the typical ways we find meaning in our lives. Cultures across the world have generally found meaning in two places: family and God. Yet statistically speaking, college graduates marry later and believe in God less frequently than do their high school counterparts. What, then, inspires the average college student? Is it the sense of community from clubs and sports teams? Is it the humanistic values embedded in a liberal arts education? I don’t have an answer; I don’t even know if I have the right question. Luckily for me, however, I’m in college, and the stakes of being wrong are much lower than in the real world.

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