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Notre Dame’s ‘Severe Mercy’

| Friday, May 17, 2019

“If it’s half as good as the half we’ve known, here’s Hail! to the rest of the road.”

How fitting that a Program of Liberal Studies major would shape his sendoff column around too many book references, am I right?

But in all seriousness, it took me four years of wayfaring to find out what I really learned at Notre Dame. That’s how life can oftentimes work: everything clicks at the moment when the scene is about to end. A good example is Sheldon Vanauken’s masterful “A Severe Mercy.”

Transience has been something humanity has always wrestled with — if you don’t believe me, take it from Shakespeare’s infamously cerebral Macbeth: “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, / And then is heard no more.”

Even if Macbeth speaks a fundamental truth, however, the ways we respond to such a reality can be radically different. I may be in a play, but does that play mean anything? Is there even a sense of self in a life seemingly formed by the whims of time? How often do we go about acting — pun intended — as if everything makes sense, but then we experience things that we can’t explain?

Oof. Seems easier to avoid. Doubts like these can ruin people (cough, cough, Macbeth). Why bother? Better yet, if happiness is nothing but diminishing returns, let’s optimize at the point where fulfillment doesn’t have to account for existential predicaments. Put me in the driver’s seat — as long as my security is found in autonomy, even the bad moments can’t spill over.

College — Notre Dame included — seems to push this narrative. “Study everything. Do anything.” The world is your oyster. Limitless possibilities. Carpe Diem! Utilize the invisible hand of progress — four years of diverse dabbling in academics will gird us with unprecedented enlightenment and the tools to change the world.

If so, then why do the “easiest” classes fill up first? Why are the “best” professors the ones who give the most As? Rather than go all in on forming ourselves, we seem to hedge our bets on a realization that complacency is the safer strategy. After all, good grades lead to junior-year internships, which lead to return offers, which lead to ah, the sweet bliss of sanctuary.

The same goes for relationships.

“Yeah, these people in my discussion group seem fascinating, but thanks, I’ve already made enough friends — the random proximity of Notre Dame dorm culture helped me set my interests and priorities by the end of Welcome Weekend.”

“Who wants to stay up late with the upperclassmen to talk life advice on a Friday night, when we can just go to their off-campus house and ‘bond’ over a keg race instead?”

“Sure, I’ve heard of ‘Ring by Spring,’ but I’m not about to start thinking about what it means that I’ve dated you for six semesters — anyways, you’re going to Chicago next year, and I’m consulting in New York; let’s not ‘ruin the moment.’”

Everywhere we look, it’s different iterations of the same message: overthinking is overrated. Don’t even bother craving if you can’t foresee the next step.

As a Catholic university, we may pose a spiritual problem of personhood, but are we offering only material answers?

Vanauken’s autobiography speaks of the power of doubt, of the depths of love and loss and of a journey from calculated autonomy to sacrificial relation. I won’t ruin the story, but it struck me at a time in my life when I was waking up to a realization that my life couldn’t reconcile a deep-seated desire for meaning with an unworried superficiality.

We all go through trials and tribulations, yet the way we often deal with them is by minimizing the risk of their effects. How can you “spare yourself” if you are committed to a path? So we end up lowering our eyes and trying not to worry. Which, in turn, gradually leads to discontent and only a greater desire to satisfy the itch. So we escape by blending in.

I’ve learned to change the approach. It may require a radical submission of self, but when we relieve the fear of authenticity, we fathom that we actually can be at peace, even if it requires being counter cultural. The satisfaction of whole being is paradoxical because it requires a level of relinquishment, of vulnerability.

Notre Dame is not just another notch in the belt, or simply a time to look back on fondly, or a stepping stone. It’s a journey of severe mercy.

So thank you, to those over four years who helped me find this priceless truth. You know who you are. Here’s to the best — the rest of the road.


After four years of blood, sweat but no tears in the basement of South Dining Hall, Tobias Hoonhout is off to New York next year, graduating from Notre Dame with dual degrees in the Program of Liberal Studies and economics, as well as some soul searching in Constitutional Studies. He will let you know what he will end up doing if you email him at [email protected]

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

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About Tobias Hoonhout

Toby served as Managing Editor in the 2018-2019 term.

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