Rethinking the Promise of the Best Four Years

Dear Deacs,

 

Wait ChapelCongratulations! You have made it through the First Week of Classes. For some of you, the mutual feelings of excitement, anticipation, and perhaps some slight nervousness are old hat. Maybe you are a Senior and this was your Last First Day of Classes. If you’ve been around the block—or maybe the quad—a few times, by this point I hope you are feeling pretty confident about the year ahead. If you’re a Sophomore or Junior, let your experiences and the expertise they provide offer you some solace as you venture into what is still unknown. What is certain is that you all have a community here which is ready to welcome you back with open arms. If it is your first year at Wake Forest, please find comfort in that those same yet-to-be-known friendly faces are also ready to welcome you home.

Regardless of your class year, my guess is you have repeatedly heard the remark, or some wistful alternative of, “oh college is the best four years of your life!” It’s typically followed by a retelling of “back when I was in college…” and a reliving of the glory days. It’s a variation on a common theme usually only sung in a major key—happy, triumphant, and brilliant. This rhythmic ostinato repeats so often the melodic riff takes on the form of promise. You are promised moments of powerful resolve during late night rendezvous with friends to get midnight milkshakes, lively discussions with professors that leave you feeling curious but self-assured, and the celebratory moments when post-grad offers start rolling in and your peers and mentors rally around you.

The repeated claim that college will be “the best four years of your life” and the evidence offered as support do a wonderful job of inspiring hope, motivating success, and heightening expectations. That’s why, at least I think this is why, we put so much effort into finding the right college and making sure it is the right fit. If we are going to have the “best four years,” then doesn’t everything need to be a perfect match? We assume that for something to be “the best” there can be no room for error. We have to find the perfect major, the perfect friend group, the perfect professors, the list goes on ad infinitum. The promise made prevents us from considering anything less. Since you are at Wake Forest, you are most likely used to aiming at perfection, or a near equivalent, anyway. How could you ever expect anything less of your college experience than what you expect of yourself? Isn’t that what all the hard work has been for? To get you to this point of “the best four years.” I get it. I, too, tend to be a success at any cost kind of person. I have spent more time than I’d like to admit beating my head against the wall convinced that if it isn’t perfect, it’ll never be good enough. Usually, this translates into my own variation of wondering if I’ll ever be good enough. Side note: you are more than the sum of your accomplishments (at least that’s what my mentor told me)!

Wait ChapelThis unfulfillable promise caused me a lot of heartache during my time at Wake Forest. I was convinced that because this was supposed to be “the best four years of my life,” I needed to be deliriously happy all of the time. When I wasn’t, let’s be honest who is, I was convinced that I was doing something wrong, I was throwing away my experience, and that some arbiter of cosmic justice decided I didn’t deserve the universal experience of “the best four years.” I spent so much time trying to fit myself and my happiness into the same prescribed box that seemed to fit the happiness of the people around me and was shaped by those who came before me. I thought that if I could just make my life look exactly like the lives of those around me and fill it with the things that made other people appear happy, then happiness–and success–would be mine for the taking. Empowered, I tried to take my happiness and my life into my own hands. I was convinced that I had to be the one in control all of the time. However, life has a funny way of showing us where the limits of our control lie.

In spite of my best efforts to make it so, my college experience wasn’t perfect. Yours won’t be either. Those glorious moments of midnight milkshakes, revelatory discussions, and celebration will be interspersed with intense moments of self-doubt, inter-personal conflict, and struggle. I hope you come to realize that this is more than just okay. This is the fullness of our existence. This is a life of dynamic contrast. This should be celebrated. For this, I am grateful.

Poet Rainer Maria Rilke writes “Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final.” We know joy, light, and celebration because we know sadness, darkness, and struggle. Better yet, these less than desirable states and the events that bring about them have a way of shaping us in ways that allow us to know even greater joy and success. During my own moment of deep struggle, a mentor reminded me that “the hottest fires are often the most refining.” I have held on to that advice ever since. It has become a mantra I repeat whenever I feel myself experiencing the heat, pressure, and tension that life tends to apply upon us. With this new, non-dual perspective on good and bad, I find that I am able to practice gratitude towards the more difficult moments as they are helping to mold me into the person I want to be. These moments and how I respond to them are giving shape and providing clarity to my character. Let them do the same for you.

Don’t allow the belief that you are the only one experiencing hardship dismay you. Naturally, while we tend to experience true joy as a public emotion, we conceal our struggles from each other. Maybe we do this out of our own shame or our fear of ruining someone else’s happiness or the belief that someone else might not understand why we aren’t having “the best four years” of our lives? I haven’t decided why yet. For me, the answer doesn’t seem to matter so much anymore. While I tend to be very skeptical of promises, I will go ahead and make you two of them. I promise you aren’t the only one experiencing hardship. I promise you are in a place where you are cared for in ways greater than you can ever imagine. When the time comes and you find yourself realizing that the “best four years” doesn’t necessarily mean everything is going to be perfect and easy, let someone else show you how much they care for you. The possibilities of who that might be are endless. It may be a friend, a professor, a mentor, or any one of the countless people who call themselves a part of the Wake Forest community. You’re in a place where there are no wrong doors. You simply have to pick a door, walk through it, and allow the person on the other side to care for you in their own unique way. I hope you also take it upon yourself to do the same when the door opens on you and someone else needs your care. We have a responsibility to pick each other up and dust each other off from time to time. This communal attitude is the wellspring of my love for Wake Forest.

What I have come to learn is that the expectation of perfection, the hope that something will be “the best,” and the sense of entitlement that comes with believing something has to be “the best” is actually antithetical to our happiness. We are more nuanced than that and the way we experience our happiness should be more nuanced. After all, if something is exactly the right fit for who you are right now, then where is there room for progress? Where is there room for improvement and growth? Let yourself experience the pressures of being formed. This is what we should aspire to embrace during our years at Wake Forest University and beyond.

 

 

With Deep Affection,
Mary Logan Costanza ‘21
Wake Forest Fellow
Office of the President

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