No going back

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JANUARY 29, 2018

Nostalgia is a hell of a time.

With graduation just around the corner, I’m coming to the end of an era, so of course I’m consumed with looking back. And of course, looking back helps nothing or no one, but God, it feels like the only thing to do, doesn’t it?

In “Slaughterhouse-Five,” Kurt Vonnegut wrote one of my favorite lines about this urge, saying, “And Lot’s wife, of course, was told not to look back … but she did look back, and I love her for that, because it was so human. … People aren’t supposed to look back. I’m certainly not going to do it anymore.”

It’s the juxtaposition in this passage that gets me. Lot’s wife was not supposed to look back. She did — of course she did — because it’s the most human thing to do. She was punished for it. The speaker loves her for it, but he won’t do it — he knows he’s not supposed to. This very human compulsion is not one he is meant to give into.

We are so drawn to nostalgia while simultaneously knowing there is nothing to be gained from it.

Nostalgia is also, of course, a liar. Things were never quite as good or bad as you remember — they just were. You want to go back because you’re convinced you’ve never felt as scared as you do in the moment you’re in. But that’s rarely true.

As I finally approach graduation, and quite possibly the end of my formal schooling, I find myself desperately wanting to prolong this part of my life. For someone who agonized and stressed over every paper I wrote, I’m suddenly struck with wanting nothing more than to keep on doing just that.

The only point of reference I have for this impending graduation is my high school commencement. At that time, I couldn’t be happier to move on and get out of Texas. Inevitably, in looking back, I’ve come to remember the sense of mourning I felt even then. There is so much fear in the unknown, and the end of something is perhaps the greatest source of unknown we encounter in life.

Mourning feels like an overly dramatic word for what is going on, but it also feels like the only word that is close to accurate. In her book “Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books,” Azar Nafisi talks about this sense of loss, claiming you mourn when you leave a place because “you’ll miss the person you are now at this time and this place, because you’ll never be this way ever again.”

And yeah, we all know I’m not actually going to miss ridiculous deadlines and RRR weeks colored with existential despair. I’m going to miss the person who suffered through those deadlines while questioning the meaning of life in Moffitt Library at 11 p.m. on a Tuesday. I’ll miss napping on the glade after pulling an all-nighter. I’ll miss the liminal space that is Durant Square on Saturday nights. I’ll miss all of it.

I will never be in this precise moment again, so I will never be precisely the same.

As long as we’re students, we have the opportunity to experience things as students. Leaving a time of my life means leaving opportunities. That’s the hard realization. You can look back all you want, but you can never go back.

Don’t get me wrong, I still fall firmly in the camp that anything is possible and you can always start your life new, no matter how late in it you are. These beliefs, unfortunately, do not preclude the reality that time passes. You cannot remain suspended in a moment of indecision and infinite possibilities forever.

One of my favorite podcasts talks about this by comparing time to wax dripping from a candle. As the wax drips, the possibilities are endless — it could take any shape. Inevitably, though, the wax will land and harden. It will hold only the memory of all the other shapes it could have taken. And in this moment there is great sadness, because “it is impossible not to think of all the wild forms that wax now will never take.”

It is impossible, approaching graduation, not to imagine all the wild forms my undergraduate career could have taken.

And this is a weird feeling to have, because I do not regret any of the forms it did take. It’s easy to say I would have changed this or that, but I don’t really believe I would have.

Maybe this sadness is inevitable — maybe, even more, it is an indication of just how good this time has been. These past four years have been full of so many opportunities. Maybe the only time you can fully realize that is when you’re leaving it all behind.

Contact Danielle Hilborn at 


FEBRUARY 06, 2018