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What really matters in the end

| Monday, April 25, 2016

If you are a graduating senior, you know the swirling, complex feelings conjured up by the prospect of departure. Maybe you have scarcely had time to consider them fully with the onslaught of final projects and exams looming just a week away. Maybe you have hidden them away like an unsightly thing that you cannot bring yourself to countenance, however obvious its presence might be. Or maybe you, like many others, are simply moving along in the sunlight of these new spring days, living in the moment, as yet another academic year comes to an end.

The final weeks of any given academic year do not offer much time for reflection. If the academic year were a work of fiction, it would conclude finally, cataclysmically with the climactic period of exams. There’s no real falling action, no denouement. Instead of sloping into a gradual decline, the semester’s efforts continue along a plateau that you might well sprint off of, your arms and legs churning comically before you realize that you’re not on the ground anymore. You’re no longer there.

A recent Notre Dame graduate told me that he didn’t realize he’d left college until about two months into his first job. Only then did the feeling strike him. Another alum said that just setting foot back on campus put him at ease. Yet another recalled how thrilling it was, in retrospect, to stay up until 5 a.m. writing an essay the night before it was due. Such reflections probably seem foreign to those of us still studying here, but in time we’ll be there, too, looking back through the distorted lens of memory.

Though much of our reflecting on college will likely happen years afterward, I find it a worthwhile practice to examine how we have spent our time at a place while we are still there amid the trappings of experience, if only right before we depart. Two poems by the German language poet Rainer Maria Rilke come to mind as particularly illuminative for such an endeavor.

The first is titled “Eingang” or “Entrance” in English. I first read it in an introductory literature class my freshman year, and its words have haunted me since then. In its brief verses, Rilke’s poem enjoins us to “step out in the evening / out from your lodgings, wherein you know everything” for “your house is the last before the far-off place.” It is a poem that calls us out from familiarity into the expanse of the world, a fitting metaphor both for our entry into college as well as our departure.

In the subsequent verses of “Entrance,” the poet describes how you — “whoever you may be” — will “have made the world,” or at least your world, through your encounters. But such encounters also tend to involve departures, a theme which Rilke treats in a poem called “Abschied,” which might be translated into English as “Parting.”

Rilke writes of parting as “a dark, not gotten-over / terrible something, that once again / shows, delays, and tears apart a bond of beauty.” It often approaches you without warning, and leaves you “like a plum tree / from which a cuckoo hastily [has] flown” — so hastily, indeed, that it forgot the word “has” the poem seems to imply. Parting is portrayed here as destructive. But what it threatens to destroy is precisely what matters most.

A bond of beauty. It’s not exactly the way we might conceive of our time in college. But that’s what we are being offered. Call it friendship or camaraderie. Call it some notion of shared identity. That might sound rather abstract and highfalutin, but when it comes down to it, certain platitudes about remembering people and relationships more than accolades and test scores turn out to be pretty true. No one is going to miss Notre Dame for the lack of opportunity to earn the best grades in the “real world.” People miss Notre Dame for the relationships they had there.

Of course, these bonds can be maintained. But unless you’re moving to Chicago or signed on to be a double Domer, you’re not going to be around Notre Dame people on a regular basis. Departure remains a “terrible something” that we have to come to terms with in the end.

For my own part, I have to acknowledge a lingering regret: that I did not set aside time to deliberately get to know so many of my peers beyond superficial greetings and glancing conversations. I cringe internally every time I realize, in horror, that I don’t even know the name of a person who has said hi to me. The irony of that first Rilke poem is that I read it over and over again and wrote about the need to “step out into the evening” as I sat at a familiar desk. When given the chance to form a bond with others, I more often shuffled off to the library for self-appointed solitude.

We all have our reflecting to do, whoever you may be. It could well be worth considering the parts of our time at Notre Dame that matter most before the time for departure finally comes. After such reflections, perhaps the final lines of Rilke’s “Entrance” will resonate with our departure:

“And as your will grasps its sense / Tenderly your eyes let it go.”

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

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About Charlie Ducey

Charlie Ducey is a senior who studies English at Notre Dame. He is currently a big fan of alternative German rock music.

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