Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Swiftness of Youth and the Search for a Meaningful Life

When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in the eternity that lies before and after it, when I consider the little space I fill and I see, engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I am ignorant, and which know me not, I rest frightened, and astonished, for there is no reason why I should be here rather than there. Why now rather than then? Who has put me here? By whose order and direction have this place and time been ascribed to me? – Blaise Pascal
This past week, Hannah and I visited several colleges on our way to a family gathering in North Carolina. A high school junior in search of the right fit, Hannah began the week with a blank slate and few preconceived notions of what she is looking for in a college. Together we walked the campuses of some of America’s finest universities, combining urban and rural settings with modern landscapes and historic architecture that collectively formed a collage of physical beauty and academic excellence.

This is the second time around for me, Jennifer having left for Washington three years ago to pursue a double major in religious studies and graphic design at American University. It seems like only yesterday when the most significant decision was where to take Jenny for horseback riding lessons and whether Hannah should play travel soccer in the spring or fall; now, such quaint notions as horse shows and soccer matches on Saturday mornings are a distant memory, the passage of time marching forward ever so steadily. Although she turns 21 in September, I still picture Jenny at five years old helping me wash my car in Kensington, Maryland, holding a soapy sponge in one hand and gesturing with the other as she asked me how trees grow, the origin of grasshoppers, and other questions I could not answer. Only yesterday did I watch Hannah run through the pumpkin patches of a farm in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania, in search of the gourd with the right shade of orange, a pumpkin with just the right size and shape. Fifteen years later, Jen discusses with me her course selections and weekend travels to the south islands of New Zealand, where she presently studies abroad, while Hannah begins her journey into the gradual walk of adulthood and independence.

As Hannah and I sat through information sessions and tagged along on student-led tours, anxiety mixed with excitement, worry with hope for the future. The opportunities available to the youth of today are immense -- to study abroad, to experience different cultures, to design one’s curriculum through inter-disciplinary studies; the marriage of technology and academics in pristine settings, filled with the hope and optimism of youth, offers unlimited potential, there for the taking. I want Hannah to be happy and content in life, to find a college that will help her grow as a person and learn the skills needed to succeed in today’s world. But I worry that, at the “wrong” school, the competitive and social pressures of college will overwhelm her and not allow her to make the most of these unique years. As a parent, however, we often worry in vain, for in the words of Hodding Carter, Jr., “There are two lasting bequests we can give our children. One is roots. The other is wings.”

When I think back on my college years, I am filled with rich memories and feelings of grace. College was for me a time of social and intellectual growth. It expanded my mind and fed my soul. It is where I became an adult and developed an independent spirit, accumulating life-long friendships along the way. As Hannah and I admired the historic elegance of Georgetown and William & Mary, the beautiful landscapes of Duke and Davidson, the energy of American and the friendliness of Elon, I reflected, as well, on opportunities missed. "Twenty years from now,” Mark Twain once said, “you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do.” Thirty years after leaving the rolling hills and tree-Iined campus of Wittenberg University, I find this sentiment ever so true. I wish I had tried out for the college baseball team to extend my playing days by a few more years. I wish I had studied abroad, written for the college newspaper, taken more English and History classes. I wish. . . . Now, I can only hope that Hannah will have the foresight and confidence to take advantage of the many opportunities available to her, to make the most of what promises to be an eventful period in her young life.

I worry today about things I did not comprehend when I was younger. The safety and security of my children, their emotional well being, their ability to achieve financial independence and to find their niche in life; to be inspired to a life of meaning and purpose. “How can one meditate on life without meditating too on its brevity, its precariousness, its fragility?” asked French philosopher Andre Comte-Sponville. Four days together provided Hannah and me time to talk about the things that are important, about what to expect in college and in life, about our hopes for the future. At dinner one evening, my heart warmed when Hannah said, “I don’t need to make a lot of money. I just want to be happy.” Her heart and mind are in the right place. But we live in a competitive world with decreasing job opportunities. Life presses forward swiftly. It is important to find a good mentor and people in your life that will support you and believe in the power of your dreams and potential to achieve them. Finding the right balance between financial security and meaningful, life-affirming work is no easy task.

Love and friendship, art and nature, faith in God, these are the things that allow some of us to achieve true happiness and give meaning to our existence. But there is also the harshness of life, the thousand little humiliations one experiences along the way; inequality and injustice, the unfairness of an illness, the death of a loved one. They are the hidden demons ready to attack at inopportune and unexpected moments. In between the positive and negative times, in between the feelings of elation and the burdens of our pain, is when our lives are lived. In a world so often heartless and unforgiving, in which generations pass by in the blink of an eye, we can only try our best to create a life of meaning. Four years of college does not provide all of the answers, but for some it can help one find the right path in life, or at least figure out in which direction to proceed. The gift of learning, the study of literature and music, poetry and art, history and science, can help us develop the tools to find our purpose in life and our special place on this earth.

As Hannah and I looked upon the diverse and beautiful array of young faces on each campus, faces full of dreams and energy and hope for the future, it became apparent that each of us possesses unique and very individualized gifts. If my daughters can allow themselves to develop and explore their talents, some of which they may not yet be aware, they will be headed in the right direction, hopefully to a life filled with harmony and optimism, knowing that life has a purpose and that they have found theirs. “There may be trouble ahead,” said Irving Berlin, “But while there’s moonlight and music and love and romance, let’s face the music and dance.”

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