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Moving out, moving on

Observer Viewpoint | Wednesday, April 20, 2005

It’s the strangest thing. Over the last six months or so, I’ve made a regular effort to walk up and down the steps leading into the Main Building.

The significance of this action cannot be lost on those who know Notre Dame. We don’t take those steps, we are told, until after we’ve become alumni.

“Alumni” – that wretched, wretched word! “Alumni” always hinted at something sinister, and not just because I lived in Dillon Hall. It connoted the passage of time and the conclusion of something nobody wanted to conclude. As an undergrad, I would read with horror those “Class Updates” in the back of Notre Dame Magazine: “Harold O’Shea, ’50 of Minneapolis is retired and enjoys wood carving!” or “Jenny Schmidt, ’89 is expecting her fifth child!”

I loathed each of those entries for what it suggested about my future: that eventually I would become one of them.

And so, for months after graduating, I rebelled. When I had to go to the Dome, then, by God, I would use the inside stairs. This was my protest, my last stand against harsh reality. I felt I could evade the truth with each sly trip up the inside stairs. (“Take that, Registrar’s Office! Do you notice that I’m not taking those outside steps? Ha! Can you see what an undergraduate thing it is that I’m doing?”)

Denial can’t last forever. But, boy, can it linger.

We find ourselves again in that most paradoxical of seasons on campus. Fresh life bursts forth around us on bushes and in birds’ nests, proclaiming springtime’s new beginnings. And yet, we must admit there is a sense of ending in the air, a feeling that something dear to us is closing its doors. For seniors especially, this sentiment is inescapable. But the temptation to ignore it, or simply deny it, is hard to resist.

The great tragedy of this time, however, is not the inevitable approach of graduation and goodbyes; rather, it is the popular refusal to accept it peacefully, to look back with appreciation, and to look forward with optimism. As Sorin rector Fr. Jim King wisely observes, “You came here to leave here, you know.” Indeed, we spend our time at Notre Dame with an end in mind, if not in sight. It is only natural for that end to come at last. The ferocious speed with which we went through Freshman Orientation, that supremely awkward blur, dispelled us of any hopes that our four years would somehow pass slowly.

For those poor seniors who still entertain the dream of prolonging the undergraduate experience, allow me to set the record straight: it can’t be done. Try as you might to cling to this place, it will not cling to you. I can speak confidently of this, because I’ve worked here at the University since graduating last May. It’s amazing that in many ways, I think I’ve grown more by staying at my school for a year than if I’d just moved to a big city with a bunch of friends. Here I’m confronted each day not only by the fact that I have a regular job, but also that the place I called home for so long has changed drastically, permanently. The faces that defined Notre Dame for me as an undergrad have mostly disappeared, heading off into new frontiers. Or, if they remain here, I see daily that they fare quite well without my classmates and me. This is in some sense sad, but it is life.

So where does this leave us, who are preparing to say farewell? Christ said to pick up our cross and follow him. For many of us, the greatest cross to bear is release, accepting the changes in life that we cannot prevent and which spell an end to those unmistakable periods of grace. We must embrace the changes and challenges that this ending presents to us! Why deny it? Why, in these final weeks under the auspices of the Dome, would we labor so hard to put this curtain call out of our minds?

In years to come, we will reflect on this place, our heads full of heavy longing and golden remembrances of easier, bygone days. But we must treat our Notre Dame memories with the utmost gratitude and not with bitterness merely because we can’t continue making them. A friend of mine, now a second-year teacher, once told me that his first few months of teaching were hell, not so much because he hated the profession, but because it “wasn’t Notre Dame.” This is the difficult task we face: to carry this place with us always in our hearts, but also to answer Christ’s call to travel gladly beyond the comforts of this campus. Come May, moving out is a sure thing. Moving on, however, is something God leaves decidedly up to us.

Greg Ruehlmann works in Campus Ministry. Though he thinks “What are you doing next year?” is a fair question, he resents it anyways. He’d also like you to support the Dillon Dude Auction today at 5:30 on South Quad. Email him at Ruehlmann.1@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.