I finished my University degree at the beginning of May. After two hours, the invigilators said that’s your time up. They, of course, meant that the exam was finished, for us to “stop writing, put your pens down”. Yet those words uttered this time took on a different significance because it wasn’t only the exam that was over, my time as a student at the University of Glasgow was also up.
I didn’t know how to feel about that. I cannot begin to explain how absurd it feels to realise that all that stress and all those hours, all those library coffees and cutthroat searches for computers and high demand books, right at the end it all boiled down to this: waiting for someone to come collect my exam booklet, with no idea what words I dredged up and sent spilling out onto its pages. Ah well, what’s done is done.
But what is to be done now?
In the quiet left in the wake of the exam, while everyone waited to be allowed to disperse, all that was running through my head was, what I am going to do with myself now? It wasn’t a question of what I was going to do to celebrate, that I’d had that organised for weeks, but rather what I was going to do with all of that learning I’d compiled and cached in my time here. It’d all been stored up and kept waiting, saved for the day when it could be put to good use. All of a sudden what use that was evaded me.
And that’s the problem. It is only in leaving University that I am becoming aware that deciding what I am going to do next should be followed by a far more important and difficult question to answer: what am I doing it for?
I have never been someone who felt I could feel fulfilled if work was only about earning money alone. I am also not naive enough to think that you can live in this world without any financial considerations. Like it or not money plays a huge part in our material lives and having it gives each of us room to nourish our passions and pursue our own projects. However, money cannot be the only reason we choose to do a job. How can we give forty hours a week for the rest of our lives to something we don’t love or find value in? I don’t think I can do that, and more importantly, I definitely do not want to. The work we do should give us pride, should affirm to us what we value, and I hope undisputedly we would all agree, it should give us some semblance of joy.
This has made me reflect on just what University has given me and what I want to take from it into the world. University has been a tough few years of academia, but it was not just that. I am definitely leaving with some acquired knowledge: I now know what David Hume thinks about aesthetic beauty (probably could’ve lived without that) and what people meant all along when they spoke about the “dialectic method”. But I also know that I learned far more about the structures of society from Bertolt Brecht’s poem ‘A Worker Reads History’ than from any academic journal. I learned from the films of Andrei Tarkovsky the philosophy of observation and the poetry to images. I learned these things due to chance encounters: stumbling across screenings at the Glasgow Film Theatre, keeping my eyes open and my ear to the ground for goings on and always being on the lookout for places where people were open and experimenting and looking to share: share themselves, share the world they saw, share the life they’d lived. As such University is not, and cannot be, just about what is going on in the classroom or in the depths of the course texts. We learn through trial and error, through cultivating a curiosity for the diverse experience of life, through letting ourselves be led off course and guided sometimes by our hearts and not our heads. There are many different ways of seeing and ways of living and by trying as many out as possible we find out what is right for us.
Quite without meaning to and fairly quickly into my degree I discovered that I wasn’t going to be someone who could sacrifice going to the pub and catching up with a mate even if it meant my grades might suffer a stumble. I made my peace with that. I know I never got from perfect grades that bursting feeling of gratitude for my life that flooded me when I was getting into mischief with my friends. So, while I am thankful for those great and brilliant minds who I got to walk around in through their big ideas, the best thing I learned in these four years was that the best we can do is to love and be good to each other. I learned that from the people who showed up for me and who I always found in my corner when I felt I was being backed into one. We all take from our experience as students different things. Still, regardless of what we’re learning, all of us in this time go through a process of becoming.
I was forged in my time at Glasgow University, through the realisations that I continuously made about myself as I tripped up and had to reassert myself. What I prioritised came to reflect what I thought was important about life and what I wanted to make of mine. In being at University and thinking about what I’m going to make of myself now, I feel that life is determined just as much by the way you choose to look at it as by what it looks like. In living mine, I have come to see life as being about how I make it bigger than just me. I choose to believe that to make it feel full requires we stretch out and get tangled up in other people and what’s happening outside and beyond us. In this wildly chaotic and quickly changing world it is important that we hold onto our most basic humanity: that we remain optimistic, hopeful and empathetic in the face of divisiveness and alienation, and that we show up for each other when we need to.
In making it through these past four years of my degree I feel more than ever that sometimes we should stop and take stock of the reasons we are going down certain paths and to consider what impact we want to make with this life we’ve got. To this end, a person should not take a back seat, adhering to what is easy or expected. With this life we should always be seeking to flourish, to make the world better and our experience of it a happier, more loving one. I want to be free to take risks and steer myself down roads I choose of my own accord and in pursuit of my values and dreams. Yes, that can be terrifying… but only because life can be terrifying. Maybe it should be terrifying because that means that we are aware that there is so much at stake and realise that we might let life pass us by if we don’t seize it.
But our decision for our own future has to be, in some way, connected to the struggles we see happening all around us: a struggle for planet earth, for equality, for representation, for freedom for everyone regardless of birth, origin or identity. In these struggles we find so many showing that a single life, but one lived in solidarity with others, has the power to make a felt difference, the potential to make life a rich one for everyone. There are lots of things happening in the world to be aware of and take very seriously when disheartened – I’m sure the recent EU elections have everyone feeling a little hopeless. However, it is a political moment that we shouldn’t shy away from and everywhere we look we see people standing up and making their anger against a system of exploitation felt. All over the world people are fighting for change. Recently workers in Sudan rose up and overthrew a dictator who had held power over them for more than thirty years. A revolt in Algeria led by millions of workers against the corrupt system shows how worker’s power is being made known across the world with revived spirit. There is much to learn from the people who are uniting and facing their challenges together in chorus against those who wish to break and take from them.
If we are to live in a more just, more equal and free world then we have to follow their example. For we do not live as a set of isolated, atomised individuals. We are each connected to each other in a multi-faceted and complex network of reliance and dependency. We are often made to forget this pursuing our own ends, trying to pass our exams or to reach the top of the career ladder. I hope that we all choose to remember that we exist together and we remain tied to each other inexplicably.
At the end of the day, university ends and the bubble bursts. Yet with life, unlike exams, you never get to put the pen down and stop writing. As cliché as it sounds, the story keeps getting written as you go off into the world: that feels both frightening and damn beautiful too. With every decision, every choice, every new place, we’ve got to make sense of the madness and find that little slice of life which is for us. In knowing that we get to occupy this space for such a short time, decide to do something wonderful with it. I’m going to trust in the wisdom of the great Maya Angelou when she says that she “always had the feeling that life loves the liver of it!” I want to believe her. I hope that when I am old and grey and, fingers crossed, living in a happier and healthier planet Earth, when I sit down to feast on my life, I will find it a big and tasty meal. I want to have contributed to making the world better in some way because I think that is what life is about. This is only achievable if we are all in it together.
To finish, I hope that when any of you find yourself a little lost, as I have often been, or searching for what it is you should be doing now, that you will find that as long as you are chasing to preserve and multiply the good, then you are living right. This outlives us; happiness multiplies when it is shared and seeps into the tomorrows of others. What I try to remember in all the uncertainty, and live by, is that a life lived well is one where the world has become a happier place by virtue of us having been in it. That doesn’t have to mean that you single-handedly inspired world peace or cured cancer, only that there are people whose lives were better off for you having been here. Take comfort that if this is so then, whatever you’re doing, you’re doing something right.