To say the COVID-19 pandemic shattered our reality may be a little extreme, yet it is undeniable the past year has revealed something fundamentally true about our world. We fill our life with structures and habits which give meaning to our existence. We put so much value into them that we believe them to be true, to be what’s real. However, when the world shut down in March 2020, we all saw how fragile our reality really is. The things we thought we could depend on, jobs, ceremonies, people, went away and instead we were confronted with the chaos that is true existence.
That all may sound a bit morbid and a little dramatic, but as I reflect on my time at college and think about my future, this realization of chaos, that our world is impermanent and in constant flux, is the biggest thing I’ve learned here. I promise this ends on a positive note.
It may be no surprise that I spent much of my time at Binghamton University studying philosophy. From my first philosophy class freshman year, I have been drawn to the work of Friedrich Nietzsche. A lot can be said about his thought, but my main takeaway is ever since his proclamation that “God is dead,” we now live in a world with no grand meaning. The beauty here is that we can — we must — create our own individual meaning. Admittedly, it has taken me until these past few weeks to really feel this — to feel like I can create my life the way I want. But looking back, this was something I already knew my freshman year.
For the TED-Talk-style presentation for Writing 111, I gave a talk called “Existentialism is a Piece of Mind.” In this, I argued that the tenets of existentialism, on which Nietzsche was a big influence, give us freedom in this world to be whoever we want. Existence can be scary, chaotic, but there is no predetermined thing we should be. With that, I charged my classmates to be whatever they wanted. That presentation was one of my favorite assignments at BU, but I strayed from my own message as my studies went on. The first slide contained a Nietzsche quote reading, “For the way — that does not exist!” This is said by the titular character in his book, “Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for All and None,” when discussing “the way” — a single proper path to be taken in life. As a freshman, I knew “the way” didn’t exist, but when the pandemic hit, I longed for one. Knowing the world is chaotic and in flux is one thing, but actually having to confront this was scary. To give myself a way, I decided my path would be through academia. I came up with a plan to graduate early and enroll in the philosophy department’s accelerated degree program. I thought this ambitious task of getting a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in four years would be worth something, would give meaning to my life. I thought this new way would put me on track to be a philosopher, and I guess with that, also a professor. I applied, got in and even took some graduate classes this semester.
I succeeded in finding a way, but it wasn’t my way. That quote from Zarathustra comes after detailing how he arrived at his truth by trying many different ways. After recounting his journey, Zarathustra says, “This — is now my way — where is yours?” It became apparent early on in my journey on this path that this way was not what I expected. It is probably a way many people can get behind, yet I couldn’t help but feel I was cutting myself off from a multitude of experiences, the many different ways I hoped to try. However, every time the thought that I made a mistake came into my head, I kept convincing myself that this was the right path. I clearly had doubts, but I wasn’t listening to myself.
I finally expressed my true feelings about this way I locked myself into only a couple weeks ago. I was having dinner with a friend, and I just blurted out, “I think I made a mistake enrolling in this program.” I then detailed every uncertainty and reservation about my future that had crossed my mind. Through this act of sharing my thoughts with another person, I was finally being authentic with myself about who I am and what I want. The next day, I took the first step to unbind myself from this unsatisfactory path and open myself up to the various ways which are out there.
Since then, my life has been chaotic as I figure out what my plans for next year are. But this is the happiest I’ve been in a while. Embracing the chaos of the world instead of acting like it isn’t there is the best way to be. I feel like I have this newfound freedom to explore my authentic self without the restriction of being something I’m not. I think a lot of people view college as a time to figure things out about yourself, your future and especially your future career. Yet, it’s only one stop on a never-ending, lifelong process of “figuring things out.” I can’t wait to try all the ways laid out before me. I don’t know where they’ll lead, but that’s the best part.
Jackson Galati is a senior double-majoring in English and philosophy and is assistant News editor.