As I maneuvered down the hill toward my senior digs in Woodbridge, I got so distracted by a feeling that I nearly let my blue bin hurtle into traffic. I shuffled through my index of jerky English-major words for feelings I’ve cultivated over the years. Was something happening to my heimlich and unheimlich, Freud’s terms for when the familiar slips into the unfamiliar leaving us frightened and confused? It was my fourth move-in to a Columbia dorm. The woefully absent air-conditioning, fickle water pressure, and puke-hued furniture had already set up shop in both my conscious and unconscious. So what was left to be scared of? When I thought about it more, I realized I wasn’t frightened so much as, I suppose, wistful. Mono no aware.
I doubt I’m the only senior returning to campus with a limp—with one (mental) foot out the door. As our “college experience” attains what is supposed to be its pinnacle, we find that we’re not 100 percent there. We know better than to try to rule the campus "Old School" style. In our interior monologues, the celebration of how far we’ve come is hedged against the humbling truth: Outside these gates, we mean little to anyone (professionally speaking that is). To act, as previous generations have done, the part of top banana, would be like Xerxes whipping the Hellespont.
In the year 2013, graduation will be like the Battle of Thermopylae. (One thing I’ve learned here is that you can never take the comparisons too far.) You need one hell of a poker face to pretend you’re not nervous—or to be hiding behind a trust fund the size of King Leonidas’s bicep. And this applies even if you’re going into finance. On the occasions that I converse with an actual grown-up, if I tell him or her that many of my smartest friends are finding jobs at banks and consulting firms, he or she usually looks surprised and replies, “Still?” Surely, we wear different masks, and we have different pre-prepared answers to questions about post-graduate life. But when it comes down to it, nothing lasts forever. No one has it all figured out.
Perhaps as a coping mechanism, some of us have developed a third eye. This third eye, a weird new kind of consciousness, is fixated on the last-ness of things. We are constantly grieving a future loss (with no mind to the actual quality of what is to be lost). The last blue bin. The last Core class. The final—we hope—run-in with so-and-so. The last psychiatrist’s note exonerating us from PE. Like paintings from Picasso’s blue period, our third eye is always watery with tears, even when we are otherwise happy and excited. It betrays the mournful Cyclops in all of us.
This brings me to that feeling from the first day back on campus. To describe it, I had to look outside the Western canon. With a bit of delving into Wikipedia, I found just the right term: mono no aware. Transliterated from the original Japanese, mono no aware refers to our consciousness of ephemerality, of passages and transitions. What could be more appropriate for the subtle sensation of returning knowing that we have to leave? Mono no aware is a way of telling a story. In the Japanese literary tradition, beginning with the “Tale of Genji” in the 11th century (which I had the privilege of studying with professor William Theodore de Bary in his epic course, Nobility and Civility), mono no aware invites the reader to share in the pathos of passing time.
On the surface, at least, our transition from college into the so-called real world isn’t as significant as the tribulations of the characters in the world’s first novel (“Tale of Genji”). But what we lack in poetry we make up for in feeling. Our concerns could not feel more real to us, even as they are pooh-poohed by our elders. Remember being told that you had a lifetime to choose a major? Then sophomore year rolled around, and you realized you’d have to scramble to finish distribution requirements—just punishment for our forays into ceramics. Do you remember the time when, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” was fertile ground for fantasy? This year, we are expected to answer—for reals. The bubble has burst—we’ve been sold out. The seniors wear no clothes.
Some worrywart once asked, “What shall we eat? What shall we drink? What shall we wear?” (Jesus, who must have been used to this kind of question, said something like, “Chillax.”) No one asked me—and yet, these are the questions on my mind as I consider life after college. They are the questions that I will, to the best of my ability, address over the course of the year in this column. I promise to scour the face of the earth for sources and statistics to catch you off guard. And above all, I will try not to waste your time.
Amanda Gutterman is a Columbia College senior majoring in English. Senior Citizen, Junior Employee runs alternate Tuesdays.