College Is Not Paradise

“I have to go to school today.”

I caught myself saying this out loud this morning as I left the house, not because I’m actually back in classes, but because I have to go up to campus on my way home this afternoon to run an errand.  Even though I graduated from Georgetown University years ago, I still refer to it as “school”, even in casual conversation with friends and acquaintances who weren’t classmates of mine on the Hilltop.  As I’ve gotten older, however, I’ve come to appreciate the fact that as much as I enjoyed my time there, it was not an earthly paradise.

The fact that years later, I ended up living a few blocks away from the university I attended was not something I could have predicted, when I walked out of those front gates for what I thought would be the last time after graduation.  Like anyone else, I left with my head full of contradictory plans, some of which came to pass, and some of which did not.  Yet on the whole, I’m better for having left behind the fallacy of believing that my best years were my college years – a malady which, surprisingly, seems to affect a number of people I know.

I’ve been thinking about this albatross-like perception of one’s alma mater recently, in the context of a conversation I had with a friend about the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald.  Best known for his novel “The Great Gatsby”, Fitzgerald did not have a huge literary output, for among other reasons having died too young, and never quite getting a handle on his alcohol addiction.  While there are many great things about “Gatsby”, it’s definitely not my favorite work of his. A contender for that title is his first published novel, “This Side of Paradise”, which is loosely based on some of Fitzgerald’s experiences as an undergraduate at Princeton.

In some ways “Paradise” can be viewed as the American version of Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited”, albeit written a quarter of a century earlier. As in “Brideshead” there is the same sense of wasted, fast living by well-dressed young people at a prestigious university, the flickering presence of Catholic faith, and the desire to pursue and win a girl above the station of the narrator.  There is also in both works a similar glow about the towers of the collegiate buildings, seen through rose-colored lenses, which alumni of any old, beautiful school can relate to.

Those who find themselves, as I do, within a stroll of the campus where they spent the first, formative part of their adulthood, usually end up seeing things differently.  Dear alma mater, which was home for four years, now becomes just another venue for attending events, conducting business, or the like. Alumni who have moved on with their lives, even as they have moved away, can have the same perception.  To quote Addison DeWitt in “All About Eve” (as I often do), “I have not come to New Haven to see the play, discuss your dreams, or pull the ivy from the walls of Yale.”

Throughout “Paradise” Fitzgerald himself, although still a young man when he wrote the book, recognizes that his time at college was not something to cling to as the high point of his life, preventing him from doing anything else worthwhile again.  “Youth is like having a big plate of candy,” he writes. “Sentimentalists think they want to be in the pure, simple state they were in before they ate the candy. They don’t. They just want the fun of eating it all over again.”

At the conclusion of “Paradise”, the main character finds himself out in the world, unsure of exactly where he is to go or what he really believes in, despite all of the golden-rayed images of his time at college.  He returns to Princeton for a visit late at night, and reflects on the fact that now, other young people are living in those hallowed halls, learning about the same things he did, having their own experiences of socializing and becoming adults.  In doing so, he finds that he does not envy them; rather, he pities them, because he realizes that he is an adult, with adult things to do.

To me, that’s the real lesson of both “Paradise” and “Brideshead”, as well as my periodic visits to my own college campus.  One should never completely discard the good things of youth, such as curiosity, wonder, passion, occasional silliness, or a sense of adventure.  Yet the focus as we grow older needs to become more about what is to be done in the here and now, particularly in service to others, rather than being caught up in the past, ruminating on the dreams of yesterday and what might have been.

For Paradise, in the end, is not supposed to be a few years on college campus: it’s what our lives right now are supposed to be leading us to.

Healy Hall, Georgetown University (Photo by the Author)

Healy Hall, Georgetown University
(Photo by the Author)


Your Time Is Now

Yesterday afternoon I decided to attend daily mass a few blocks from my house, and then pick up some things for dinner at a nearby deli, where I used to shop as an undergraduate at Georgetown University.  Monday happened to be the first day of classes, since the students all moved in this past weekend, and the relative quiet of the neighborhood around campus in summer is now broken once again.  There were young people everywhere, some carrying bags full of shopping, others bumping into one another and asking, “How was your summer?”, others heading back from class, internships, or athletic practice.

As I walked about, I experienced this rather vivid sense of time travel which is a bit hard to describe.  Perhaps the feeling was originally triggered by seeing a classmate of mine (whom I only knew slightly) on C-Span that morning, speaking on a panel discussion about the Republican National Convention, and remembering what she was like when she was about 19 years old.  It wasn’t that I actually ran into someone I knew after mass, for although I still know a professor or two at Georgetown, almost everyone who would remember me there is long gone.

Rather, it was something like putting myself back into that time when I was a new Hoya.  I still remember walking this particular route, on a Monday in August many years ago, as I made my way from campus down into the village for the first time.  It isn’t as though I had never walked this route since: as a matter of fact I probably take it at least a couple of times a month, if I am going to patronize certain commercial establishments, or attend a lecture on campus, etc.

Instead, it was a certain combination of golden, late afternoon light,  walking among these groups of students, that was a sort of journey beyond just that of heading home after church with some groceries.  It was not just that click or flash, where you are suddenly reminded of something and then it fade, but rather quite a lengthy visitation or reverie, putting me in mind of people I had known and had not thought of in many years, whose names I have forgotten but who at one time if I saw them on the other side of Prospect Street I would have acknowledged, even if not necessarily stopped to talk to.  Although I did not know the students around me, and they did not know me, there was a very strange sense that I could almost detail their lives…

And then of course, I realized that this is all rubbish.

Living in the past does no one any good – e.g., Miss Havisham.  We all know people who fit the old stereotypes of people who cannot left go of the past.  There are high school or college athletes for example, who got stuck in their own golden, afternoon light with the wet lawn beneath their feat, when they were young, handsome, and had a full head of hair.  Decades later they are unhappy, and seem to resent life and themselves in equal measure.  And this is simply one example among many.

Today the Church remembers the great St. Augustine, who spent the first part of his life having rather a good time carousing about.  By his mid-30’s however, that attempt to simultaneously hold on to youthful excess underneath a veneer of adult respectability became impossible for him to maintain.  He abandoned what he thought his life was supposed to be as a successful academic, and went down a completely different path.  How fortunate for all of us that he took that later call he received in life, and ran with it, rather than remaining trapped in a kind of hedonistic time which would have become increasingly ridiculous and sad as he grew older.

We are all living in the age in which we were meant to born, which is a rather sobering thought.  The question becomes what each of us will do with that inescapable fact, in the time we have each been given.  There is nothing wrong with periodically looking back with some sense of nostalgia, nor looking to the future with longing.  Yet if you spend most of your life doing these things, then you miss out on the opportunities you have before you today, here and now.

It was certainly an interesting experience I had yesterday afternoon, feeling as though I had returned to the past for several minutes, with my whole future in front of me just waiting to be defined.  In the end, however, I was very glad to find that the feeling passed, with no real sense of regret or loss.  There are too many things that need doing, for me to sit about and live in the past, and after all: if St. Augustine only started to figure out where his talents were really needed in his 30’s, then I am in most excellent company.

Aerial view of Georgetown on a summer late afternoon