I wouldn’t have been a Wildcat if I hadn’t once wanted to join the U.S. Navy. For me, college began under the flagpole at John Barry Hall in polyester blue camouflage, my last name written in block letters across a strip of medical tape on the plastic canteen in my right hand, and the words “what was I thinking” running on a silent loop in my head. Not exactly the scene of “Animal House” most freshmen imagine reenacting. I lasted a week. On the first day of classes I turned in my canteen and wondered constantly for the next year if I should have held onto it.
The theme of my Easter break this year, in a strange turn of events, was regret.
It was strange, because I expected most conversations to be along the same broken record that’s been the soundtrack of this year. The refrain: what are you doing after graduation? The verse: no idea, *takes large gulp of wine*
Much to my surprise I found myself doing far more listening than talking. My aunts, uncles and cousins were seemingly inspired by my impending milestone to reminisce about their own career and life choices. The common denominator between each interaction was a hint of regret, tempered always by how it all turned out right in the end. Better, even, than how it was supposed to. Even the wink-wink college stories took on a different tone.
These were many of the same people who spent the last four years telling me I was living the best four years of my life. This obnoxious, though perhaps well-intended, sentiment is the close cousin of the oft-imparted adage, “life is short.” (“You only live once” is the ugly stepsister.) The songs, the bumper stickers, the cross-stitched pillows that tell us to live every day like it’s our last, they’re inspiring, motivational. But there’s an inherent anxiety to that philosophy, to living like time is constantly running out. The kind of anxiety that builds in your stomach during the climax of an apocalypse movie, when the tsunami is coming and everyone has 4 hours and 37 minutes left to say goodbye to everyone and everything they’ve ever loved.
I hate those movies.
My theory? If you’re lucky enough, life is long. And the novelty of skydiving wears off eventually, even for Tim McGraw. We have longer than 4 hours and 37 minutes, longer than 4 years to be happy, to fall in love, to figure out why we’re here.
Every day doesn’t have to be lived like the last to be meaningful. They won’t all feel like a fresh start either, or a graduation day, or a championship win. Most are just middle-of-the-road days. Middle of the week, middle of the month, middle of a life that is sometimes hard but mostly good. The unspectacular days aren’t wasted. We need them, enough of them to make the unexpected ones really stand out. A 3-pointer doesn’t make it in the basket at the last second every weekend. If it did we wouldn’t still be talking about it a year later.
This was supposed to be a reflection on college with a side of advice, the latter of which I’m not quite sure I’m qualified to give. In May of 2017 I will graduate from Villanova University with a Bachelor’s degree in English and a strong desire to work in [insert relevant industry here]. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve typed that sentence, exported it to a pdf, and uploaded it to an online server that never sees the light of day, let alone the gaze of an actual human being, I wouldn’t need a job so badly. There was a time when my four years at Villanova were supposed to end with a military commission and in less than a month, barring divine intervention, they’ll end in unemployment. You can laugh. I think it’s funny too.
So that’s the story, and here’s the advice. Take it or leave it.
Don’t be afraid of regret. It’s easy to second-guess yourself, to carry around the dull ache of a mistake or a wrong turn, sometimes without even recognizing it at first. And under the heavy responsibility of making the most of our four years here, it’s difficult to let go of.
Of course you’ll regret things. It’s part of the deal. For a long time I regretted my choice to quit NROTC. But that choice is like one bulb in the strand of cheap Christmas lights that is my life—when one goes out the entire string is kaput. If I hadn’t taken a hard left turn away from the plans I’d been hatching for over three years of high school, I may never have stumbled upon the other people and places at Villanova that have made me who I am: like the Newspaper staff, the English department, the morning shift at Holy Grounds. And if I hadn’t once dreamed of donning a uniform and mastering a salute, I might never have found this school at all.
We can’t know which moments are meant to be, which steps are along the path and which are the detour. I think realizing that, abandoning the ache and freeing yourself from doubt, comes with a good day. The kind of day that may not have happened if your life didn’t fall into place exactly the way it did. Thankfully there are a few of those in four years of college, in between all the others when you’re hanging on for dear life with not a clue what you’re doing.
One of those days will come along eventually. Until then, take a breath. Take a walk. Eat some chocolate. You’re going to be okay.
Who says you’ll only have four best years?