“”Well”, he sighed, “I sure am up in the air. I know I’m not a regular fellow, yet I loathe anybody else that isn’t. I can’t decide whether to cultivate my mind and be a great dramatist, or to thumb my nose at the Golden Treasury and be a Princeton slicker.”
“Why decide?”, suggested Kerry. “Better drift, like me. I’m going to sail into prominence on Burne’s coat tails.””
— F. Scott Fitzgerald, This Side of Paradise
For the Yale-NUS College class of 2017.
Is youth still wasted on the young?
I ask because for some years now I’ve been told that You Only Live Once; exhorted, time and again, from early youth, to note my own impermanence. But what the millennial adage really means, I still don’t know. Is life long, or is it short? Do we have a lot of time, or very little? Casey Neistat said to Make It Count—but what time can I count on?
For four years the question has followed me like a tedious argument. Insidiously, it seems intent on suggesting two incompatible views of life. The common wisdom, if it can be called that, is: live it up. In liquor and in love and in literature, let what life you have out of its cage. Like a bank account in which dollars are days, the goal is to spend it and use it until at last the day it is depleted is the day it is no longer needed. Putting myself on this side of life, writing a sincere essay about college and some lessons we might have learned seems akin to breaking up the suite party at 11PM so that I can curl once about the house, and fall asleep.
The other interpretation: live it well. If life is indeed a bank (“though I’ve always resisted that loathsome platitude, the means by which the very gold of our lives is transformed into the base lead of commerce”) then what we have is a savings rather than a chequeing account. Deposit your diplomas and in a few years out will come promotion; deposit your dollars and out will come vacations; deposit those, and hoard the Experiences until the account bursts at the seams, your iPhone filled with photos and your eyes full of wisdom. On this side of life I write sincerely so as to make a deposit in my account, and yours. I write to capture, like fragments of poetry found in classes and old books—after the novels, after the coffee cups, after the skirts dropped to the floor—some sense of what all our time here was for… to squeeze these four years into a ball, to roll them towards an overwhelming question…
How shall we live?
Live it up, or live it well?
— — —
Flying here in 2013 I stared out the window as the city lights fell away beneath me and imagined myself living in a New York penthouse, adoring fans looking up from the streets below as I sang, “I just found out there’s no such thing as the real world, just a lie we’ve got to rise aboooove.” Later, flying over dark and dense forests, a pond just visible in a clearing, I tired of the hectic city life, tired of the torrents of noise and news that chased us down, always telling us nothing but that Princess Adelaide had the whooping cough. Seeing a small log cabin, I resolved to live more honestly. Later: as the cabin lights dimmed and the A380’s starry sky appeared above, I had a Parisian Dream, entranced by the image, distant and dim, of that awe-inspiring landscape such as no mortal ever saw. I awoke to otherworldly gardens, crystal domes, misty waterfalls and glossy white towers. The Prime Minister came to give us the keys, and I resolved to be him.
What will I imagine, flying home after graduation? Imagination seems difficult when held up against the mundanities of resumes and interviews for jobs one does not really want. It struggles, too, when faced with a ticking clock: Kygo tells me, again and again, that I ain’t getting any younger, and Dali’s clocks stretch and drip away from me (but how memory persists!) Most likely I will watch a movie, and fall asleep.
We’ve had almost four years to figure it out: what life do we want? New York penthouse, Concord cabin, Premier House? The life of the soldier, the saint, the sage or the citizen? From so many books and so many Instagram accounts we have seen so many different lives, each of which could be ours if we so chose—and amidst so many possibilities most of us wallowed, for a few years. The World Was Our Oyster, but no one who ever said that also told us that despite the sea of possibility we only in fact get one life. Do we then choose it, arranging all possible lives before us and selecting the reddest apple; or do we let it happen to us while we are busy doing other things? Live it well, or live it up?
The more we read the less sure we are. Each page is a new possibility, and, since You Only Live Once, you must not choose in ignorance. Keep reading, for the answer always lies on the next page.
But read for too long and you forget to live.
Have we read too much or too little?
Yesterday I read of the curator at the Louvre, daily moving masterpieces of our world, and I wanted to be him. Today I re-read a poet I am rather partial to, and have resolved to be a writer. Tomorrow…
What shall we do tomorrow?
What shall we ever do?
— — —
Seneca said to keep death always in mind. Spinoza said that a free person is he or she who never thinks of death. Damien Hirst showed us that, besides, death is a physical impossibility in the mind of someone living.
How shall we live? We first need to know what we think of death. How shall I write? I first need to know what I think of death.
Believe Seneca and I must write it all and write it right now, for what can happen at any moment can happen today. Believe Spinoza and I have all the time in the world, able to take another three years of classes before writing a single word. Believe Hirst and it does not matter either way—whether I write now or I write later, I will regret both.
Do we have time to wait for the interest to accumulate in our accounts—to slowly make deposits until in old age we are rich? Or must we skip the becoming and be, since we never know when our becoming will be tragically cut short?
Do I write badly now, or wait a few years to put it better—but in waiting risk never being able to say it at all?
— — —
This is education: knowing everything until you one day realise you previously did not know everything, but knowing now that you once again do.
Robert Louis Stevenson put it better: “A man finds he has been wrong at every preceding stage of his career, only to deduce the astonishing conclusion that he is at last entirely right.”
The trouble comes when we anticipate our not knowing everything. Known unknowns are far more dangerous to the development of a young mind than are unknown unknowns. The latter are harmless, where the former can paralyse. For why, knowing that one day I should have knowledge requiring me to recant all I now believe, should I now speak? Why speak, when others know more, and why speak, when I will later inevitably contradict myself? Why write, etching into permanence truths that I will later learn to be either truism or untruth? Truly, should I not wait five years, avoiding the embarrassment of stating sincerely something others already knew, or knew to be untrue?
“Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes…” “Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day…” But even they do not help, for tomorrow I could discover the book that contradicts their hopeful advice; or I could choose a political career, in which heeding the Transcendentalists’ counsel would in later life sting as if I came upon a hornet’s nest.
— — —
We leave port and set out up the uncharted river in search of promised ivory. We head West to search for the Sanzangjing, or perhaps it is Ithaka. But what if we arrive to find her poor—or if we find, half way there, that Phoenicia was enough after all?
We reject the conformity that leads to happily boring lives in a single job for life. But sometimes we find ourselves pushed towards that because it’s the “right” thing to do. We want college to force us to ask the important questions in life, to force us to confront our own character. Yet all too often we take classes that will look good on our resume. Some of us almost rejected the traditional path of a summer internship to instead spend the summer writing and travelling. But we didn’t, and worked 9-5.
Sometimes we find ourselves wanting a life without the internet. We want a private life where we can be ourselves and develop inner character without anyone watching. Other times we want followers and likes, the Instafame and instant gratification. Sometimes we want to ignore everyone in the world to be inwardly humble, to live as we believe we should live, and other times we throw ourselves at conformity to know that we are succeeding and will be remembered.
If the Organisation Kid “worked for Save the Children and Merrill Lynch and didn’t see a contradiction”, the “kid” today sees the contradiction and flips a coin to decide. We work at Goldman Sachs and do yoga and read Peter Singer, or we work at Save the Children and read The Economist. The contradiction is visible and we grasp for both worlds, too scared and too smart to leap at one and not the other.
How shall we live? It is impossible to decide. I’ve learned enough to believe in my own ignorance, but not enough to know how to overcome it. I cannot yet lecture Wisdom, and I still do not know whose Wisdom to trust.
And so, tying myself to the mast of this rickety ship, I grasp at both worlds, hoping that, like flipping a coin, I’ll suddenly be shown which one I wanted after all.
By day we put our heads down, listening to Spotify and allowing the music to present images of us ahead of others, others looking at us, us bathed in some kind of glory, and we finish our essays. By night—we watch Netflix, we chill. We recover. We rebel. We rail against the system, regretting having ever believed in secret societies and the Rhodes scholarships.
We are all of us caught between the Organization Kid and Hippiedom.
How are we to learn which life is best when the first rehearsal for life is life itself? Kundera told us that we are all merely actors going on cold.
— — —
Three years ago we said: There will be time, there will be time… Time for you and time for me, and time yet for a hundred indecisions, and for a hundred visions and revisions…
And now we say: Will there be time, will there be time?
What happened to all that time?
There is no time for indecision.
We cannot turn back and descend the stair.
We came here for many reasons. Our reasons weren’t entirely normal, because part of our mission was to reinvent liberal arts and sciences education. What is certain is that we will leave here next year with doubts and questions, jobs and internships, minor and major crises.
And maybe there we see, for the first time, that this education didn’t need reinvention after all. Maybe instead of assuming education should be something else, we should simply be happy we’ve had it at all.
This essay was completed in May 2017.