I never understood why people get so emotional about graduating. In the past, I've listened to coworkers, classmates, and friends express everything from anger to paralyzing fear about leaving the undergraduate realm. Honestly, I can't tell you how many times I've been the shoulder-to-cry-on or the assistant job seeker for people.
When I say I never understood, I mean that I never felt the way they did. People would say things, "I'm just not ready to leave," "I've got nowhere to go now," "I'm so scared that nothing is going to work out," and the like. Out loud, I was supportive, and I could both logically and empathetically see where they were coming from. It's a big step, leaving the campus and people that have become so familiar. Life once again becomes uncertain. On the other hand, I internally wondered why they weren't jumping up and down for joy at the chance for freedom -- for real adulthood -- for graduate school or job opportunities -- for bigger and better things -- CARPE DIEM!! Get me OUT of here!!
With my own graduation ceremony looming less than 72 hours away, I suddenly feel a rash of emotions and sentiments that previous students have expressed. While walking across campus today, I couldn't help but utter a noise of disgust and say, "I hate this place." Surveying the grounds and the pretty pink tulips, I thought, "Well, it's not so bad. But still -- I can't wait to be finished with all of this." Then, as I received my cap and gown, I trudged slowly across campus in tears, thinking, "They're kicking me out. All I did was what they asked, and now they're sending me away to who knows where doing who knows what with who knows who! How could they do this to me?!"
It's quite the rollercoaster. I don't recommend it.
Lately, I've been having nightmares. I mean, I usually do, but these are different. Often when I sleep, I dream of a void: me suspended in empty, crushing darkness. There is no up or down, no point with which to orient myself and determine where I am, or even who I am. Nothing is familiar, and I am alone. I've had these kinds of dreams before, but never with this intensity or such lingering effects.
Waking from these dreams leaves me in a fog of uncertainty. I go throughout the day as though still stuck in that dark, cold emptiness. I felt it again as I unwrapped my wrinkled, too long, navy blue graduation gown and untangled the gold tassle strands. Running my fingers through the tassle strands, it suddenly hit me -- the dreams and lingering feelings come from my feeling of placelessness. It exists so strongly in me that it manifests itself in my dreams. I truly feel lost, along with a decent amount of panic.
As I've thought more about this, I've concluded that this sort of anxiety speaks to feelings of displacement based on my changing position in the world. Though I do have places that are important to me, none of them are permanent. Everything in my life is transitory right now: graduation this week and finishing school in June; leaving the university I've grown to know well; acceptance to graduate programs that I'll never actually go to because they're online; leaving a student job and needing to find other employment; even my housing situation is in flux. My present places are quickly becoming my past places, and future places are presenting themselves -- though some are not really places; more like virtual experiences.
It's an unknown -- it's a feeling of anxiety that occurs even before losing an important place. Facing graduation, loss of employment, and an almost place-less form of virtual graduate schooling creates that anxiety in me.
Of course, changes like these aren't a bad thing. They're actually very good things; things I've worked for and looked forward to for a very, very long time. The emotional effects, though, are incredibly real. Being displaced from the undergraduate experience, employment, and people is a lot to handle all at once. It's kind of like when someone is forced into homelessness or made into an exile through war or foreclosure. I don't mean to minimize these events by comparing them to my current transition; losing a home or a familiar place because of such traumatic events is without a doubt much worse. I use that comparison because it's the only one that makes sense to me, that I can understand.
Graduating is turning me into a school-less (and somewhat reluctant) migrant student -- an exile from everything I have known for the last three years. While my exile is partially by choice, and the graduate program I've chosen to attend does provide a new place to go, I'm still being displaced. I have met the requirements for graduation, and my diploma becomes both a celebration and a pink slip.
I don't like change. I don't like losing the places and the people I have come to know and appreciate. However, I am human, and so my body must move. It must change and move and go new places, do new things. I of all people understand this now: after spending nearly a month in bed recovering from a surgical procedure, I've learned that staying in a room too long really can make a person go crazy. I wanted out! I wanted to move and change and go to other places. And I could not.
It was hugely frustrating.
None of us is meant to be stationary; movement of some sort is necessary. Still, the emotional distress that occurs from losing place is real. I'm feeling it in a big way now. I feel a mixed bag of loss, excitement, anger, sorrow, anxiety, betrayal, anticipation. These places have been critical in forming who I am and where I will go in the future. It's probably universal: places affect us and shape us. Perhaps the fact that places are key formative elements is what makes the displaced feeling distressing. We know we must move on from certain things, but letting go is difficult due to the ties to the place we grew and changed in.
For me, my feelings of loss over my current state and place are helping to spur me on to the next experience. I mourn the loss of familiarity and worry over the new places I must find, yet these familiar places help me realize that I can't stay. Current places have shaped what I do, who I am, and where I will go. My experience as an undergrad student, while coming to a seemingly abrupt and frightening end, has created that desire to move to a new place because of the experiences I've had in the place I now leave.
It's a strange, almost cyclical phenomenon: loss of place creating sadness and anxiety over the loss, while silmultaneously pushing us to find new places, which also creates uncertainty and grief. This constant shuffling of place is what makes us grow and change. Memories of old places shape our interactions with the new. Both types of places directly influence who we are, how we think, what we will become, and where we will go in the future.
Thinking about it in this way is helping to turn my feelings of terror (yes -- terror) about the coming changes into excitement. I won't lie. The fear is still very real, as is the deep loss I can't quite understand and never expected would occur. However, it's being tempered with curiosity and excitement for the experiences and places that lie ahead of me.
Though don't expect me to be all hopeful all of the time -- I'm desperately hanging on to any happy thoughts to keep myself from falling apart!