During my senior year of college, I went to a professor of mine, and asked him this question: what can I do with a philosophy degree after I graduate? This was a question a lot of people had asked me and I never knew the answer. He told me this
A) you go to graduate school and become a professional, academic philosophy professor
B) you make a small switch, apply to law school, and become a lawyer
C) you flounder
It’s been about two years since I graduated college, and I can say now that there’s a fourth option.
But I didn’t know that two years ago. I thought I had only three choices. To answer the question, I used the secret technique I learned long before when training for a standardized test, the key to multiple choice questions: process of elimination.
I knew I didn’t want B) become a lawyer. I wasn’t sure about A) Become a professor- but I did know I didn’t want to do it right away. So I chose C) flounder, with the option of erasing my mark, and changing it to A), later in the test.
It was a rough beginning after graduation. I was devastated. I know that having a college degree is a blessing, and I should consider myself lucky to have one. I do. and I know ‘devastated’ sounds a bit melodramatic. But that’s what I was, devastated. For one, I didn’t know about option D). Also, it might help to explain the special meaning ‘devastated’ has.
‘Devastate’ comes from the Medieval Latin vastus, which means vast. But not vast like a sacred mountain, vast like a barren desert. Incredibly empty, immense. A waste-land. Think of how a German would say the word ‘waste-land’ (vaste-land) and you start to hear the similarity between vast and waste, magnitude and nothingness. It’s no coincidence that the Grand Canyon is called grand, even though it’s essentially empty space. Vast has a lot of cousins: vapid, vain, vacuum, void. All of them mean the same thing: empty. Not full. Un-full-filled. That’s how I felt after graduation: Unfulfilled, devastated that everything from kindergarten to college was a waste of time. Because seventeen years of education gave me three hollow choices.
Become a professor
Become a lawyer
I didn’t attend my graduation ceremony. I didn’t believe in it, the public recognition of my “achievement”.
I was in a waste-land. But the truth was, I was in a waste-land for a long time before that. Almost all of public education is a waste. At a young age you’re given busy work which means nothing, it’s just meant to keep you busy. It’s a big vaste of time. Add to that standardized achievement tests, which are deVoid of any purpose other than to determine how much funding your school will or will not receive. And that’s when I was in school, it’s only gotten worse since Bush launched No Child Left Behind and Obama expanded it. Music and history classes are being eVACuated so that kids can focus on multiple choice exams. And yet, we wonder why there are so many dropouts or, if we’re lucky, graduates who come out not knowing what to do, that they have other options.
It’s taken me all of two years to feel like I am flourishing, despite the fact that my path is unprescribed. First, I went off the deep end and went on a Walk About, a long bike trip to the Ohio River, a long story for another day that was really me trying to avoid the void. Then I came back, hunkered down and did the basics: got a job, an apartment, some independence. It was tough for a while, because I felt like I was floundering. I was ashamed to tell people I’m a barista, yet another over-educated worker in the service industry. But now I know I’m much more than that. I realized it today when an acquaintance- not a friend mind you but a mere acquaintance- asked me to watch his cats while he went on VAcation.
This was my graduation ceremony. The public has recognized me as a responsible, useful, and trust-worthy adult.
* * *
Last week, I ran into that old college professor. He asked me if I was in graduate school. No, I said. Then what are you doing, he asked, a look of confusion on his face. I’m… my voice trailed off… I could tell him all the things I’m doing: the job I’m holding the hobby I’m exploring, the neighborhood I’m joining the people I’m loving, the garden I’m raising the compost I’m making, the blog I’m writing the open mic I’m MCing, the sobriety I’m maintaining the serenity I’m chasing… but I just said to him, D) flourishing.
I’m not ungrateful for my teachers. Playing with a word like I did with devastation, that I learned from them. But what I’ve learned in the last two years outside the education system is that learning how to manage your own life involves not only a whole lot of practical stuff, but also coming to a place where you don’t feel like you’re wasting your time, your life, or your day. And no one can tell you how to do that, or what it looks like.
But I have one hint. It’s a Jewish word, mitzvah, and it means ‘worthy deed’. And guess what- it doesn’t have to be vast.