It was as I was walking into the auditorium—when I was in the center of it, with nowhere to look but up and all around at what seemed to be ten thousand cheering, faceless strangers—that I finally came to terms with the fact of my graduation. I have put off writing about it for as long as I could, have done so until I felt I might forget the tiniest details, and later regret not remembering them for some ill-defined reason. But it was as I was walking in that it suddenly, finally, irrevocably hit me.
For me it is a sobering, all too awkward endeavor to look at the last three years through any kind of lens: personal, academic, religious. Suppose you could dissect them all –those various factions—and examine them individually, the personal, the academic, the religious, or what have you. Probably, you could. But I cannot. For me, they are all meshed together into this ridiculous, gratifying, confusing, ecstatic whirlwind that I’ve made for myself. My only little slice of history I’ve tucked away in anecdotes, a few pictures, and what seem to be ten thousand different essays on ten thousand different writers. Each of them—the pictures, the essays, the stories, the images—are significant.
I would like to sit here in my bed, it nearly midnight, at the end of a kaleidoscopically enervating year, and pretend to tell you that I am where I wanted to be, or rather where I thought I would be—a few steps, a long walk, a glorious run spaced over three and a half years to that certain point of contentment and ease. I can’t. I’m not there. And I haven’t been for a while.
I guess if my own college experience were to have ever served its purposes (and I believe it has), then the idea of being “there” would only be an idea and not so much a reality. But to get “there,” you must set forth. The journey itself gives value and meaning to the destination, which always seems to change no matter how ‘close’ you think you are to getting ‘there.’ Whatever ‘there’ really means.
That is why, when I look back, past random pictures and the stacks of essays I haven’t thrown away, I see myself at various levels, changing, questioning, nearly always keeping my questions private and hidden where I thought they would resolve themselves, by some means, with the right answers.
When I started college, I declared a major in English because I enjoyed reading and I liked writing, and the off-hand idea of teaching didn’t bother me so much as the requirement that one declare a major. I had no clue what I was doing. Part of me still doesn’t. But I think choosing a field most contingent upon a classical education, though it hasn’t particularly marketed me well for society, has helped me most with the areas which I think are most important.
I guess I should make it obvious that I have no regrets. Were I not to have chosen my major, I wouldn’t have the friends I have now, the experiences which have made me into who I am now. And yet the person I am now, at this moment, seems to me yet but a shadow of the person I’d like to be—an idea so different from the grounded person I thought I’d become. Everything is up in the air: floating, flying, dancing wildly in the wind. And the odd thing is that I’m okay with it. For the first time in my life, gilded resume established, degree on its way in the mail, real world banging loudly at the door, I’m perfectly, absolutely content with not knowing what I’ll be doing.
That’s what I was thinking about during my graduation. Not so much how incredibly different I am at 21 than I was at 18, but rather how different I might be at 24 than I am at 21. Where might I be? Married? With children? Teaching? Writing? Speaking another language in a completely different country?
None of these questions I could answer. I still can’t. And yet I’m okay. It’s as if, for what feels like forever, I have been running along the hallways, looking at various doors and always thinking I wonder what’s behind? Always wondering but always pressing on to one in particular, and then, having arrived there, at my destination, finally, I decided, quite suddenly, no, never mind, I’d rather keep running. And the door stands shut. I go for something else because I’m not finished running.
And so, it has been nearly four months since I have officially considered myself no longer Protestant, no longer affiliated with my parents’ and my brother’s church. No longer affiliated with any particular church. September of this year was particularly trying, particularly bleak and ambiguous. For the first time in my life, there appeared to be nothing to fall back on: no security, no definite religious conviction, not even a niche in writing. I still haven’t told my parents, though it was after my first absence from church, no words exchanged before or after regarding the subject, for them to notice a change in temperament. The awkward, fevered tension is there. It’s stayed, in the air and at the core of every conversation. And I know it won’t dissipate until the decision has been made as to how I am to approach God and which church is right.
And when the groundwork of religious security fell away, so too did everything else. I guess I should have expected it. How might anything stand without its foundation? And how might a person function without his sense of himself fully intact? It can’t. He can’t. What you have instead is the bleak fact that you messed up somewhere, or were misled, or focused your attention on the things two and three and four and five while somehow always bypassing thing number one.
I have been struggling with this for four months—some of the longest, most uncomfortable months of my life. I wish I could say that I’ve come closer to making a decision, but I haven’t. The only thing that’s changed is the bleak fact that I no longer feel the terror of this strange, ambiguous religiosity. I’m in the middle ground. The uncomfortable, all too awkward phase where there are more questions than there are answers, where all I can say is, “Yes, I believe in God.” And that’s about it.
Sometimes, I get so angry and bitter that nothing seems more gratifying than throwing my hands up and walking away altogether, no longer feeling the pressure of choosing which of the six hundred million divisions of Christendom to study seriously, to consider making a pillar of my religious life. That is why I’ve made my own little trinity of choices. The Anglican, the Catholic, and the Orthodox churches. Truth be told, I don’t see myself ever becoming Anglican, though it’s the church I attend regularly at the moment. I think it stems from the fact the both the Anglican church and I are in a flux, some kind of movement with questions as to what’s acceptable and what is not littering the floor as we walk, hand in hand, down the aisle toward communion. It’s probably a gross, misstated analogy. But it’s the best I can do. It’s really the only thing I can do, right now.
I keep waiting for an answer, something to push me in one of the two remaining directions. The effect it would have on my immediate family would be not so dissimilar to Pearl Harbor or September 11. I wish I were joking. Were I to become Catholic or Orthodox, the chasm it would create would be astronomically immeasurable, with me on one side, weathered neophyte, and my family on the other, broken and wailing. And so each day I spend with them, I take in the moments, knowing those will be the points of reference for “before”. Before he converted. Before he left our church. Before. Before. Before. This is the time for the measuring. This is the now from which we should extract our happiness.
I’ll confess right off the bat that such thinking is a little nihilistic, though I’d be lying if I told you it was also hyperbolic, that I’m exaggerating the approaching circumstance and the effects that are sure to ensue. I’m not. I do know that they will love me regardless of my decision. But I believe it’s a sin for me to continue down a path that isn’t fully contingent upon Christian doctrine. It probably sounds like I’m condemning my parents, my brother, really all Protestants. I’m not. But I do believe that my entire life has been morphed and shaped, largely, almost entirely, by Protestant Reformation and Alexander Campbell. It would be so nice, so endearing and convenient, to pretend that the rest of the world, that history itself, resembled my little space in Tennessee. But it doesn’t. And I believe that once a person realizes this—that he’s a cog, working for something he either does or does not understand—then he must make the decision as to whether he will begin the long and daunting task of finding out where history has placed him and how it came to be, or whether he will sit back and think of the world as something to which he can say, “You exist, of course, but I’ll consider you later. I’m okay, for now, just right where I am.”
I’ll figure it out eventually. I have to. But the wait is so frustrating, so enervating. I’ve heard people say theirs was a three year journey, or a five year journey. It’s been four months. How much longer?
So. Graduation. I was one person out of 700. Summa Cum Laude. Who’s Who Among College Students. What other empty words for ego-inflation were used, I can’t remember. I have a brochure somewhere. I should probably order the official graduation pictures for my parents. The engineers were on my left, the nurses directly ahead of me, on my left was a history major and on my right some stranger whom I’d never met and whom I’ll never see again. For the past three years, the question has been, “Well what do you want to do when you grow up?” And for the past three years, I’ve responded with, “Well, first of all, I hope I never grow up.”
Okay. Well . . . how might you earn a respectable paycheck? Exactly. No clue. And, again, no worries. I’m perfectly, genuinely, whole-heartedly unqualified for the society I live in. I’ve read some of the best books in the world because that’s what I wanted to do and this was the only degree that would allow me to do that. What I really wanted to do was to figure things out. To really figure things out. To start over, find square one and start running. I think I did. I just started running too late.
That’s one of the many reasons why I’ve postponed my decision to go to grad school; that is, if I ever will go to grad school. It’s also the reason why I’ll be making the effort to finish my second B.A. in less than two weeks, with a Spanish major. It’s a legitimate excuse to “better market myself” while I run along, knowing I’m just buying more time to keep asking questions. I hope I’ll never stop asking them. I probably won’t. But for sanity’s sake, for a little peace of mind, I’d like to have my foundation back. Not the same one, mind you. But the one I’m working on building. It would be nice to stand up again, for once, without feeling like I’m about to fall on my face.
Graduation. From day one it was just an abstract concept: something that would happen, but . . . not for a while. And then afterwards? Well . . .
I thought I’d be in Knoxville at the end of this year, this new year, 2011. I won’t. Instead, I’ll be in Spain, with the person who makes me happiest. I’m giving myself this year to keep asking questions, and to take with the utmost humility the fact that it’s still okay to not know everything, to know that I will never know everything or have all the answers that I feel I need. I’m visiting the people in my life who probably won’t be here in ten years, my grandma, my grandparents. And also my beautiful, Protestant family, all of them, who’ve made for themselves a life I’ll know in my memories, because I myself am headed in another direction: into a different language, different country, different take on the same religion. For so long, I’ve worked and worked, hoping that the day I’d have a tassel in my car (class of 2010) would be the day I’d know for sure. What I was doing, where I was going, how I would help people. And instead, I’m just figuring it out. Just now. And that’s okay.
I’ve changed in three years. My entire world has changed in three months.
I’ll let you know how my tiny slice of history plays out. It’s not finished. I can’t see the finish line, and I don’t even know what it looks like anymore. And for once, I’m okay.