photograph of graudation programs on rows of empty chairs
"Empty chairs before the Clemson graduation" by olekinderhook is licensed under CC BY 3.0 (via Wikimedia Commons)

Even in normal circumstances May represents a moment of disruption and distress as seniors transition out of college into the post-grad life. At this time last year, some would go straight into their careers, some prepared for graduate school, some planned to move out of the country to teach English, and some yet took a break and tried to figure out their next move.

The Class of 2020 will see their college career end in an unexpected and abrupt way. And while they will be robbed of the many meaningful farewell moments of the final weeks, the Class of 2020 will experience what every preceding graduating class has experienced: the end.

Despite the variance in circumstance, our feelings before we set off are likely the same: sadness about the end. Seemingly just as the seeds of relationships and daily routines took root, watered by the unique sense of community and stability only offered by a university campus, the hoe of finality came down and tore those roots out. We will never live that life again.

In the waning weeks of any usual last semester, seniors conduct final run-throughs of their favorite social rituals, staples of their college lives that would soon no longer be. There is a mad scramble to fit in as much as possible into those waning weeks and days, as if four years had not been enough time. Then names are called and diplomas were given.

Once the moment is over, it is over. No member of the Class of 2020 can ever retrieve it, revisit it, or relive it outside of their individual memory. Realizing that, of course, is what anchors you in the feeling of sadness and longing.

Be it the loss of a relative, the severing of a relationship, or the end of a fun vacation; big or small, tragic or happy—some things stay with us and encumber our progress forward through time. After an experience such as that, we jostle with some variation of the question: How do I find satisfaction in the present again? The answer, obviously, does not lie in longing for the past. Yet we do.

Certainly, we do ourselves a disservice by not moving forward. But what role should the past play in our present life? What relationship with our past to we owe ourselves?

Envying the Forgetful Cattle

In his On the Uses & Disadvantages of History for Life, Friedrich Nietzsche writes that humans are jealous of animals’ happiness:

“Consider the cattle, grazing as they pass you by: they do not know what is meant by yesterday or today, they leap about, eat, rest, digest, leap about again, and so from morn till night and from day to day, fettered to the moment and its pleasure or displeasure, and thus neither melancholy nor bored. This is a hard sight for man to see… he cannot help envying them their happiness.” 

Of course, sometimes we would all prefer to eat, rest, digest, and leap about but what Nietzsche is asserting is that the cow is happy because it retains nothing of the past and anticipates nothing of the future.

Nietzsche expounds: “In the case of the smallest or of the greatest happiness […] it is always the same thing that makes happiness happiness: the ability to forget.” The ability to forget is the key to happiness, or so the German Existentialist would argue. But Nietzsche notes that is impossible for people to do. He observes a human “cannot learn to forget but clings relentlessly to the past.” A person’s fixation with the past ends up defining the present moment, preventing the person from enjoying it and thus ensuring that it is wasted.

And so are we destined to be like the man he describes in his passage?

“Then the man says, ‘I remember’ and envies the animal, who at once forgets and for whom every moment really dies, sinks back into night and fog and is extinguished for ever…”

Perhaps some would argue that we should strive to be more like the forgetful cattle and simply, however contrary to our human nature, live in the present at all moments; thus, never longing for the past and never being anxious about the future. Perhaps then we can be happy again. But however appealing the happy life of leaping about and grazing may sound, it is absent of many qualities that characterize a good life.

Remembering a “Moment”

Noted screenwriter Aaron Sorkin delivered a commencement address from Syracuse University’s graduating class of 2012. Among many insightful anecdotes and useful pieces of advice, he said the following, contradicting Nietzsche’s prescription:

“Baseball players say they don’t have to look to see if they hit a home run, they can feel it. So I wish for you a moment—a moment soon—when you really put the bat on the ball, when you really get a hold of one and drive it into the upper deck, when you feel it. When you aim high and hit your target, when just for a moment all else disappears, and you soar with wings as eagles. The moment will end as quickly as it came, and so you’ll have to have it back, and so you’ll get it back no matter what the obstacles.”

The past plays a central role in Sorkin’s prescription. There will be a moment that will end as quickly as it came. It will die, sink back into the night and fog, extinguished forever. But you will have to have it back. And it is in pursuit of reliving that fleeting moment when you hit your target that will give your life purpose. Sometimes it is those fleeting moments, which exist longer in the past than they ever could in the present that drive an individual, motivating them to move through time.

Indeed, the past plays an important role in our lives. Yes, the beast may lead a life of happiness but it will never remember what made it happy. It will never know ambition because it will never remember what it wants. It will never remember the moment that it realized its passion. It will never remember the moment it fell in love. It will never remember the long-standing joke between friends. In short, it will never long for anything because it will never remember what it would long for.

Happiness may arrive when the past is forgotten. But it entails the loss of meaning, purpose, passion, desire, and sustained relationships. We owe ourselves those things, too.

Moving On

Our relationship with our own past is one of the most important relationships we will have in our lives. Understanding how to forge a good one and tend to it properly is key. We should not aspire to be like the forgetful cattle because they know no motivation for today or tomorrow. But we should not allow the past to shackle us either. Temporally, there is no going back. Time moves forward, and the longer it takes us to realize that the longer we will have wasted the present moment. It is good to move on. It is right to move on. You should move on.

But you should not forget the moments that make it hard to move on. It is those moments that are often worth contemplating but not seeking out to relive exactly. It is those moments that can provide a standard for what we desire from the future, even if it cannot be a carbon-copy of those moments. Indeed, it is only because of past experience that you know what you like and what you don’t like.

Whether its a traumatic experience, like the passing of a friend; or a good experience, like a fun weekend too short; or a bad experience, like a poor performance on the ACT; or a memorable experience, like the laugh produced by a joke, which soon becomes recurring between friends: past moments inform what we seek in the present and future. But moving on can overcome the often crippling longing for the past.

Yes, it is time to move on. And that means acknowledging a moment has gone and will never come again. But it also means striving to find another moment like the one that makes it so difficult to move on and being grateful you had such an experience.