June 8, 2004

A tale of misunderstanding and parting words

The letter would arrive in the Saturday post. Adam—we'll call him that—was understandably nervous; the last year, if not the last two years, all came down to one simple envelope. We had met in class. We found hiding places far away from the din of the constant melodrama, sharing personal trials, theoretical conjectures, and idle talk of women whom we dared not approach. Our paths had since diverged—we joined different a cappella groups, different fraternities, and then faced off on the debate team.

If only he had been there to see the mail, piled high on the kitchen table, he would have known immediately. Instead, his parents' quick once-over of the envelopes yielded nothing. It was only on a second, more thorough examination that the large 9-by-12 inch envelope stamped with a single word, "CONGRATULATIONS," registered in his parents' minds. The congratulations were in order. Adam had been accepted by Stanford…to transfer.

Of all the student bodies in the world that one would expect to be welcoming to the kind of adventurous spirit Adam aspires to, Chicago had proven to be most misunderstanding. His resolute simplicity was ever present; he walked, almost every day, between the Shoreland and campus. Where there was only a determination to experience, others sensed oddity, too self-absorbed to have time to understand.

His only question to me: "How do I finish the year?"

It was, like always, one of external simplicity, and yet astonishing depth. How are we to behave when our actions have little consequence? When we know that we will soon be gone?

Many of us are looking back at an experience that is about to end. I have been wrestling with it myself for some time; two months ago I was accepted to take a year at King's College, department of war studies. I accepted. The prospect of leaving has hung about me like a fog on a still, sunless day. I will be moving on to "What's Next."

For graduating fourth-years, it is even more significant. How do you say goodbye to a place that has taught you so much, and yet will probably forget you in a few years' time?

And so we go about defining our final days. It is, in one sense, like death. It is the passage of one segment of our lives, and a personal renewal replete with new friends, new places, and a new experience.

Finishing allows us a new beginning. We can reflect, examine our failures, and resolve to do better. Introspection is the key to the existentialist concept that we define ourselves with our present actions. Our legacy will be self-conceived, and that conception will take hold in the sepia-toned neurons that constitute our own private memories of how things ended.

A very close friend of mine died, not unexpectedly, a few months ago. In one of our final phone conversations, she said to me that she hoped I would remember the times we had together fondly. I was, at the time, standing in the Reynolds Club. It was busy. I felt alone.

It struck me then, as I stood among the cacophony I had long attempted to separate myself from, and as her faint voice carried through the phone, what it was to look back, and to consider a life lived. An experience reflected upon.

Will we finish with dignity? Will we end on a note that we will, years later, be proud of?

It's up to us. And it is my hope that none of us write off this end too blithely. It is too easy simply to move on, to make the same mistakes, to disregard events as beyond our control and our errors as statistical, not psychological. Let us all take a moment and reflect.

I leave behind, in this place, teachers of gravity who have taught me the balance of discipline and freedom, books of substance that have illuminated my experience, and most importantly friendships meticulously cultivated through air-conditioned road-trips, bad double-dates, quirky ceremonies, 12-hour flights spent fabricating the future, exhausting runs along the lake shore or through the streets of Buenos Aires, a midnight drive down Michigan Avenue, John Coltrane softly in the background