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The Daily Cardinal Est. 1892
Friday, September 29, 2023

Philosophical novels bring comfort to an anxious soon-to-be graduate

Doubts and existential crises of identity do not sneak up on us. They live and breathe around us, humming and whispering in the air. They weigh down on every breath that we inhale, and every particle of air we move through. Though, sanity dictates that we learn to exist without ever being cognizant of their eternally patient presence. How would we find the drive to keep looking for meaning and doing things we believe matter if navigating each day felt akin to swimming with an anchor? Cracks do appear though, and with the persistence of a toxic fog those paralyzing doubts slither in.

One such moment is nearing the end of your undergraduate college career. The moment you fully realize that you’re on the precipice of such an eventuality, you start living in simultaneous states of denial and crippling uncertainty. It doesn’t matter that time begins hurtling at a breakneck speed towards the end, or that you’re faced with decisions that will influence the beginning of your adult life. It doesn’t matter that you’re also still faced with unimaginable work loads and the fear of missing out that has you living the wild life every weekend. What matters is the only living thought in your head, one that circles around and around itself without pause, of witnessing the end of an era for yourself.

It’s nothing new or strange; like teenage angst, we all experience it and we all are also privy to the world acquiring a healthy sense of amused disdain for it. But like teenage angst, this moment will always be ripe with glorified terror and doubts for the one about to experience it. The rest of humanity, our parents and our peers who graduated before us without the world crumbling or them falling to pieces, does not bring us comfort. Like teenage angst, our worlds revolve around us. But with that angst, there is also the accompanied adult realization of how little and insignificant we really are in the world.

I’m sure perspective will come, just as bittersweet moments and lessons learned will warm us. Of that I am sure of, which is of little comfort at the moment because I am not sure of anything else. For the moment though, the moment encompassing this last month in college, I have to live with the doubts that usually just whisper and shimmer around us. And those experiencing this moment with me can vouch for how the doubts make for really lousy company. These being some of the last words I will write for The Daily Cardinal, I will yet again attempt to show the solace that can be found in the world of stories and literature. People far more brilliant than us figured out at some point the secret to concocting ordinary words in a way that calms and lightens the darkest places inside a soul. I refuse to ever think I’m beating a dead horse with that belief.

Stumbling on a favorite quote prompted this tirade, but also gave me a little reminder as to why we go through the daily grind day after day, even when it's brutal… especially when it's brutal. “And we should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once. And we should call every truth false which was not accompanied by at least one laugh.” Author Friedrich Nietzsche is by no means every one’s favorite thinker or writer, but therein lies his appeal for me. One does not have to agree with everything he spouts in his writings or philosophy to at least be charmed by his vigor for life. In “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” he repeatedly hammers home the point of our existence. It is not a call to stand on a mountain and scream about God’s death if that does not agree with you. Rather, it is a call of blazing intensity toward a life that is full of experiences, chaos and passion and as free as you can imagine. The beauty and perhaps tragedy of Nietzsche is the immensely quotable nature of his work. While admittedly that makes him one of the most misinterpreted philosophers of all time, it allows us to take from his words the meaning we find in it and in doing so allows us to find little pieces of ourselves too. “You must be ready to burn yourself in your own flame; how could you rise anew if you have not first become ashes?”

I always find myself drawn to writers in times of great questioning who wrote incredibly chaotic stories with an utter disregard to anything short of ripping the mind apart. Kurt Vonnegut has a reputation and cult following for doing just that. But, in “Cat’s Cradle,” he attempts to equally mock and explore man’s need for purpose. We believe it so very deeply, regardless of our faith or lack thereof. The human condition is to look around to some extent and find purpose. We see it in everything around us, every brilliant thing we chase and every terrible strife we survive. We find purpose. So much so that fathoming the absence of purpose is akin to that paralyzing terror and state of being crippled. What would we have if not purpose?

“Cat’s Cradle” is written with all of Vonnegut’s distinguishing quirks and terribly entertaining sense of irony—there’s a chase for a weapon to end all, a crazed scientist, dictatorship and the end of the world as we know it. Through the midst of it all he has us confront what it means to truly be aware of and on the cusp of an end. What life have we lived so far, and how will we live the remaining small part of it? Where will we find that elusive purpose and will that purpose even matter in the end? The two themes driving the story, mimicking how they drive real life as well, are that of science and religion. We’re at a point in advancement where anyone with a modicum of intellect worships at the altar of science, but Vonnegut allows us to face how that very devotion will one day end up destroying the world. Through the further mockery of a fictional religion in the book, Vonnegut stays loyal to creating comedic value for things that are sometimes terrible to grasp.

“In the beginning, God created the earth, and he looked upon it in His cosmic loneliness. And God said, "Let Us make living creatures out of mud, so the mud can see what We have done." And God created every living creature that now moveth, and one was man. Mud as man alone could speak. God leaned close to mud as man sat up, looked around, and spoke. Man blinked. "What is the purpose of all this?" he asked politely. "Everything must have a purpose?" asked God. "Certainly," said man. "Then I leave it to you to think of one for all this," said God. And He went away.”

They say there is no cure for some things, but just waiting for them to pass you by. However terrifyingly uncertain or unknown this stage of change may be, or how tragically depressing the end of this era is, one thing helps to get through it all. That is to know that this too will end.

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