There and Back Again

With two years left at UChicago, time feels more elusive than ever.

By Henry Cantor

I’m almost halfway through my time at UChicago, and I’m not sure how else to explain it, but I can feel time getting away from me. I shouldn’t be surprised. Time is precise and unforgiving, but that doesn’t make it any easier.

It’s not one of those things where I suddenly asked myself where the time went. Instead, every day gestures to me that something has turned over, and it’s that casual repetition of things passing that feels wrong.

I started feeling this way when I realized that I could no longer take whatever classes I wanted, but I had to be more intentional with my time. I have to make sacrifices. I’m not sure why accepting that is so hard, but I almost feel like I was lied to.

College has a certain mystification. We’re under the impression that these four years are all about choices. Unbounded freedom to explore and experiment, where we finally get to be participants in our own lives. That’s an unrealized and impossible ideal, as this image is in competition with the requirements of the school. It’s this uneven freedom that is a constant source of confusion for me.

For the first part of our lives, we didn’t have so much say over our education; the difference is that college itself is not a requirement, at least not under the law. Unlike high school, no one is forcing me to be here (in theory). This isn’t 13th grade, so to speak. Instead, we’re opting into something fundamentally different.

I’m also sensitive to waste because, like most, I’m not a Rockefeller, and so I realize what it took my family and me to get me here. But I can’t have everything, and with so much happening simultaneously, there’s always the possibility that I made the wrong choice with how to spend my time. Should I spend more time on my classes or in seminars, with these friends or those friends, exploring Chicago or exploring campus? I don’t believe these things are always in conflict, but four years (what’s the magic to four years anyway?) is a short amount of time to fit everything in, so each day feels like a contest.

It’s like sitting down at a buffet of your favorite foods and knowing you can only eat so much. The result is that it’s hard to feel whole while I’m constantly dividing myself. To use an imperfect metaphor, it’s unsettling to feel like your feet are never firmly planted on the ground. Some of this is certainly due to our quarter system, where every week holds a different significance, and there is no such thing as easing yourself in. This all requires a special urgency that I was not prepared for.

I don’t think college can decide what it wants to be. I’m constantly tumbling over myself trying to understand what I’m supposed to get out of all of this, so my college experience feels entirely disordered.

It’s hard for me to understand what’s happening and why I feel that my time here is under siege. It might be that I exhausted myself to get here, and it’s precisely that ethic that guarantees that just being here is not enough; that’s too complacent.

If I think back to when I was 17 and remember all the things I promised myself I would do, I’m failing in my own ideal terms. And even though it would certainly be worse for me if those terms were fulfilled, that doesn’t mean that I don’t want to do right by myself.

I keep telling myself that all of this is rather obvious. Didn’t we expect that time would leave us behind?

Intellectually it makes sense. But maybe not so much.

Henry Cantor is a second-year in the College.