“The Unexamined Life is Not Worth Living”

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A few of the many books I was assigned (and loved) in college

Now that it has been almost a year since I graduated college, now that I am trying to find contentment with where I am right now, I thought that perhaps I should reflect on my time in school in order to fully appreciate the experience. College was definitely something I wanted to “get through” so I could get to the “next stage” of my life, but I also received an education that truly commenced my search for meaning in life. Rather than always focusing on what’s next and forgetting the steps that got me here, I want to remember and be grateful for all that I learned along the way. It may be slim pickings in my area to find a job suited to my (liberal) degree, but what I learned means so much more to me than just finding a steady paycheck.

I can’t speak for them, but I don’t think that any of my fellow classmates were as excited as I was when I discovered that I had been accepted to Sonoma State in 2011. To begin with, after six years of not being in school, I was not even sure how to go about applying. I wasn’t sure if my past accomplishments in high school would even still apply in the admissions process. A 24-year-old first time freshman? How did that work? I hardly told anyone that I was applying because I didn’t want to get my hopes up. If I wasn’t accepted, then at least no one would know. When the letter came in the mail I couldn’t believe it. My journey was about to begin.

I have always loved learning, I have always loved reading and pushing myself academically. But somewhere along the way, my passion receded and I lost hope. It began with just wanting a break from school, with wanting to save money. Then the realities of being an adult — bills, work, my grandfather passing away, my mother being diagnosed with breast cancer — made the idea of going to school seem beyond difficult, practically impossible. Writing, which I had always done just for the love of it, also became difficult, practically impossible. I was no longer inspired, I felt hopeless and lost. So where did the drive to apply to college come from? It didn’t happen all at once and I can’t pinpoint one “A-ha!” moment for you. There were many factors. I knew that I didn’t want to disappoint my family, and when I thought that, I realized that I was disappointing myself. I was selling myself short. My grandfather’s passing immobilized me for a time, yet if he were still alive he would have been devastated if I wasn’t in college. When my mother survived breast cancer after a double mastectomy and chemotherapy, the relief and happiness I felt was indescribable. Not only was she getting a second chance in life, I felt like I was as well. My mother survived, and I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to make her proud.

Working all the time, though out of necessity, had actually proven to be fulfilling in so many ways. It has given me an education all on its own. But it also left me feeling empty after a time. The restaurant business can be grueling, draining work. There are times when I feel like I am constantly dealing with rude people and their eccentricities. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life working as a restaurant hostess.

As I write that last reason, I know that it may sound shallow or callous. And obviously I find nothing wrong with working at a restaurant. I believe that once you work at one, you can do anything. But nevertheless, it had a hand in pushing me to pursue what was important to me — obtaining a college degree that would enable me to do what I really love. Outside factors definitely strengthened my ambition, but when it comes down to it, the reason that I went to school was for me. Ultimately, if I wasn’t doing it for myself, then what was the point?

When I finally began school, my steps forward were justified. I felt so lucky that I heard about the Hutchins program during freshman orientation. The program spoke to me, to my capabilities and my style of learning. The Hutchins program is a Liberal Studies school within Sonoma State, where the first two years of general education are provided via seminars, small classroom sizes, reading, lectures, and films. Hutchins courses “combine the varied subject matter and methods of the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences.” The Hutchins style may not suit everyone (so much reading and talking!), but it really enabled us to explore and question our lives and our world in new ways.

I feel that where I was in my life at the time assisted with my smooth transition into school and the Hutchins program. I was more than ready and willing to ask the tough questions, to look at the stark reality of human existence and wonder what is out there and what it all means. I am not saying that I was ahead of the other students because of my age and position in life, but I do think that my long hiatus from school and my life experiences gave me unique insight. I was in school because I wanted to be, I took it seriously because I was the one paying for my education, I was the one who knew that there was more for me in this life than what I already had.

I could acknowledge and appreciate the complexities of life that we addressed in my classes because I have endured many hardships and celebrated many simple, beautiful moments. I hold all of these moments close to my heart because they have defined the world around me. I will admit, there are moments when I feel despondent, insecure. What I have to always remember is that this happens to every human being in the unknowable trajectory of our lives. I have to remember that with the bleakness of the world, infinite possibilities for breathless wonder coincide.

The books we read every semester were illuminating and exciting. Nearly every book was important to me in some way, validated a feeling I had, or opened the door to a new way of thinking. The overall message that I garnered from the assigned literature underscored my closely held beliefs and values:  it is a chaotic world, but we can define it with the way we live our lives. Every life has importance, every action retains value. Human life is something to be marveled over, cherished, celebrated. There are moments in history and our personal lives that are horrendous, shocking, seemingly inexplicable. When these moments occur, what do we do? Where do we go? My undergraduate education forced me to grapple with these questions and to consider what we do in the face of adversity. How we respond and what we do under pressure or duress is what defines us as human beings. Life may seem meaningless and therefore insurmountable, but we cannot and should not let the inexplicable occurrences of life go without notice or question. As Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

My college courses made this realization clear to me:  going through the motions is no way to live. Soldiering through the trials and tribulations of existence is essential, but simply “enduring” life is not the answer. How we react to what happens in this world and our lives is how we can make a difference. The prognosis may be bleak at times, and that must be acknowledged, but if we do not maintain hope and wonder in our everyday lives, we have forgotten a truth that still glitters even in the darkest of nights. The truth is that life may not always make sense, but the simple fact that we are even existing is miraculous.

We are an ever-evolving species, growing and changing in ways that would seem incomprehensible to our ancient ancestors. To revere the life we live, we must look back and pay homage to where we came from. If we think about how it all began and where we are now, it can encourage us to hold life dear and grow in ways that could ultimately change the faces of the very things that we fear. If everyone could realize that we are all components of something larger than ourselves, I believe respect and reverence for all human life would be sure to follow. Could that be naive of me to think so? Maybe. Is that going to keep me from believing and wanting that sort of equality? No. College highlighted the importance of lifting away the veil. At the same time it also emphasized the significance of placing value where there seems to be none.

Many people participated in the Hutchins program in order to become a teacher. I, on the other hand, was in the program because the lessons were important to me on a different level (and I didn’t want to take a million standard general ed. classes). What we did and what we learned not only made me think and question; I believe that the liberal education I received played an essential role in my growth as a human being and therefore my ability to be a better writer. As a person and as a writer, I don’t want to just crank out bestsellers (although that would be nice) for the sake of making money. Financial success would be welcomed, but I wish to write stories of importance to me and hopefully of meaning to others. As we always asked in Hutchins, what does “meaningful” mean? We live in a world of representation and are constantly bombarded with images and messages that convey little or nothing. If I could somehow cut through that meaningless junk, even for a fleeting moment, I would feel content in simply putting forth the effort.

College taught me to continue questioning what I have always wondered:  who are we? Why do we do the things that we do? How did we get here and where are we going? Is life simply a random, chaotic mess, or is there meaning amidst the wreckage? Through school I also gleaned knowledge. Not necessarily concrete answers, but a deeper understanding of human existence. I care and I worry and I strive and I laugh and I live. And I am not going to stop.

I wish you a wild, free life.

 

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