I have very little idea of what purpose means, but today I’m writing about it anyway. This is how I make sense of things. I’ve addressed it in this column before: purpose, meaning, being 21 and utterly confused. My dedication to seeming continually lost is less of an artistic choice, and more of a direct representation of what takes up the majority of my brainspace lately. Most weeks, when I see my editor’s deadline approaching on my planner, I crack open my journal and scan through my most recent scribbles and streams of consciousness until I find something that might be just substantial enough to lengthen into a readable column. But the whole precedent of my writing, in my head at least, is that it will never be read or given hardly any weight. Yet as these things go, from time to time, an odd column of mine will be discovered by a family member and sent to an aunt in New York, a cousin in Seoul. On a recent phone call with one such family member, I was offered the heartening redundancy of well-meaning assurance: You’re meant to be figuring things out right now. Then, the question: So what do you want to do?
The question reminded me of weeks of profusely typing out drafts of college applications, changing my mind about the prompts every hour. The snow that fell out my bedroom window that night I found out that I wasn’t accepted to my top choice school. Much like the snow that drifted through campus this morning as I walked to my favorite class, for a major I hadn’t even considered two years ago. The question reminded me of sitting cross-legged in front of the television in my grandmother’s living room after kindergarten, watching a documentary about female firefighters and convincing myself that was my calling. It reminded me of the rush I felt when I put on my name tag at MUN conferences, taking myself a bit too seriously, chairing committees and editing resolution clauses. My years of drilling the Spanish subjunctive conjugation coming to fruition on a trip to Madrid when the Spanish cashier at the boutique told me that my accent sounded Madrileno. Shaking hands with the news anchor I met on a field trip and imagining it being my name on the screen, as I announced breaking headlines.
What do you want to do?
If I had superpowers, I swear I would do it all. The apprehension comes from the sense of impending conclusions. This be-all, end-all feeling that I need to make a decision, and that I’m doing it on some sweeping deadline. Because here on campus, you blink and the semester is nearly over. Halloween has passed and the silver Christmas tree is set up in your dorm room, and the only remaining exams are finals. Every month or so, a career panel will come into your accounting or management class and urge you to arm yourself with the skills you will need to be, in a few years, exactly where they are now. Graduation is nearly just as far away as Welcome Weekend was. And still you have no concrete perception of who you’d like to be. The scariest part of all this is admitting it. Going into a meeting with an advisor, right after the pre-law student and right before the one fervently set on being an investment banker, uncertainty becomes the biggest possible vulnerability.
On the harder days, I’m half convinced that I’m at the wrong place, chasing all the wrong dreams. A while ago, I saw a clip of a Kendall Jenner interview, where she talks about keeping a childhood photograph of herself taped to her mirror. The idea is that in any moment of doubt or self deprecation, she reminds herself it’s that little girl that she is talking about. Looking through pictures of myself when I was a child never comes without a hint of sentimentality. In dramatic circumstances, maybe I’d describe it as heartache, because it feels easy to consider it a loss. A loss of youthful carelessness and looking ahead to becoming someone, to formation. But really, it is more of a numbing, anesthetic feeling, knowing that you know all the things that the little girl could only wonder about.
We listen to music penned by celebrated composers like Mozart or Brahms and marvel at their genius. Their symphonies are reinterpreted and performed to death by world-famous orchestras, braved by the most renowned conductors. We read the great novels by Tolstoy or Melville and scour criticisms and analyses, the decades of writers who followed, trying to crack their inspiration open. We’re told to follow, to be influenced, galvanized. How convenient it must have been for them, we think, to know exactly what they were placed on Earth for. To have melodies and words flowing out of their fingertips. To have such infatuating, permeating purpose.
Sensory memory is a funny thing. Stepping out into the snowy front courtyard of McGlinn this morning, for the briefest, most dizzying moment, I was transported back to the day after I received my early admission result — my winter coat zipped up to my chin, heading to brunch and coping with my redirection. The air smelled the same. All of high school, I thought an acceptance to that one particular university would be my purpose, that the unkempt knots would untie and leave me with pretty strings to lace up into some form of resolution, a plan. But that particular winter would pass, and the snow would melt away. I’d enroll in another university, and wear a new winter coat. Now it feels impossible to imagine my days if I hadn’t ended up going to school here. Around two and a half years later, I look up at the snow-covered dome and wrap my scarf around my hair, inhaling in the winter ambience, exhaling all my misplaced, past ideas of purpose. If there is one thing I can wager to say about purpose, it’s that purpose is transient. Its evanescence is what makes it so perplexing, yet it camouflages itself into something that seems deceptively definite. So meekly, I challenge the idea that we’re meant to be good at one thing, to chase one singular aspiration. It’s not really about the lack of potential, but the overwhelming assortment of opportunities. I could be wildly incorrect, but for what it’s worth, this concept makes me feel a little better.
It translates into the new series of unrequited loves that college brings. Scrolling through LinkedIn job postings feels unsettlingly similar to when we would huddle together with the Common App open. We’ll pour out all our hopes, wear our hearts on our sleeve. I’ll set out on a path, or more likely several different ones, until another redirection points me on the way to something I hadn’t considered, something that ends up being better than I could have ever imagined. In a couple of years, I’ll step out into the snow and think of the white scenery of this very morning, and then still, the one from December of 2020. And I’ll thank my lucky stars that I didn’t let a silly thing like purpose trip me up.
Maybe a lack of purpose isn’t that scary a thing at all. The pressure and distress we feel is all but self-imposed at the end of the day. At the end of my day, my roommate makes me a mocha with just the right amount of espresso, just the right amount of chocolate. A package arrives at my door with the perfume I’ve been waiting for. Inspired by the Kendall interview, just as much as I am by her street style paparazzi shots and enviable array of shoes, I tape up a baby photo to my desk. About six months old, my appearance in the photo strikes me as safe and protected. The headband-clad girl smiles as if she really could do anything. She and I will be figuring things out for a while, but the snow will always melt into spring, and even then, it will always come back. Fluttering, the purest of white, an indescribable sense of warmth in its freezing touch.
Reyna Lim is a sophomore double majoring in finance and English. She enjoys writing about her unsolicited opinions, assessing celebrity homes in Architectural Digest videos and collecting lip gloss. Reach out with coffee bean recommendations and ‘80s playlists at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.