Monday, April 16, 2007

In the Real World

We adults love to remind college students that things will be different when they get out there “in the real world.” But as a very wise colleague of mine is always quick to point out, college is very much the real world. People work and eat and sleep here. People fall in love here. And as we were tragically reminded by yesterday’s horrible events in Blacksburg, people die here.

That is not to say that the loss of these young lives is not particularly heart wrenching. There is something special about one’s years in college. Friendships have an intimacy that few are fortunate enough to experience afterwards. Late night conversations about philosophical topics are likely never to be repeated. Passions are uniquely fevered. And world events take on a special sense of urgency. Never again will pizza fill your soul as well as your stomach.

Aristotle held that all beings had within them a “telos,” an end goal, a potentiality that we actualized through living. The process of life unfolded who we would be from who we could be. A block of unhewn marble contains within it infinitely many statues, works of unsurpassed beauty, elegance, and depth that simply have yet to be carved. College is that magical period when we are freed from many of the more mundane tasks in life in order to focus on one’s individual telos, when our potentialities reveal themselves to us and our paths of self-actualization begin. We not only find out who we are, but begin to create who we would become. Students at university are both marble and artist. For those of us who are privileged enough to spend our adult years in contact with young, and not so young, people standing before this existential intersection, it is always tender and joyful to watch them struggle with the intensity of that coming to be. Even the most insignificant decision holds for them possibility in the chaos of living, the future still amorphous, but taking form in both concrete schedules and shapeless dreams.

It is that open-endedness of life that leaves your soul to weep for those students from Virginia Tech. While we mourn all unnecessary loss, to have the future taken from those who were so actively engaged in creating it is especially sad.

As a father, I cannot fathom the parents’ sense of loss. As a philosopher, I have no concepts that can make sense of this horrific event. As an empathetic being, I cannot pretend to have any words that could soothe such pain. But I hope that it is of some comfort to their loved ones to be able to think of all of the beautiful statues that these young people were in the process of creating from themselves, that their dear ones may remain forever in their minds the multitude of potentials they were bringing to the world, to this world, to “the real world.”