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Coming of Age Sad Contemporary

Graduation lingered on the horizon; my future felt close and far away. On the road here, I was so certain that this was where I wanted to be. My end goal never faltered, my vision of this moment never marred by uncertainty. Now, I have arrived, and I only feel like going backwards; I need more time.

My final exams were a sure thing; I had done everything right. The only thing I did not take into account was actually facing my future. It is a funny thing that people do, when they bury themselves in work. It is often prescribed to those who have trouble seeing the light at the end of things:

"You got to stay busy!"

Well, I stayed busy. I became busy. I was soon nothing but busy. There was nothing else to me but moving forward. My capacity for contemplation all but disappeared.

I spent most days preceding graduation wandering around campus, admiring the other soon-to-be graduates engaged with each other in the spirit of farewell. I could mime their celebratory gestures, and lose myself in my temporary joy, but soon I'd be alone. And in being alone, I met myself again: a deer-in-headlights.

Soon I grew tired of the ubiquitous optimism, so I walked at night. My university left its library and other facilities open quite late, so as to encourage students to spend nights close to school, and away from bars. One night I shuffled my way towards the library.

The library was a beautiful old building, cathedral-like in its structure. It stood erect with strength, large mosaic windows, big wooden doors with wrought-iron handles; the image was that of something that survived the passage of time, that survived the surrounding modernity, losing little of its character.


Inside the library, I was assaulted by cold. Little light was located above, in tiny chandeliers, and desk lamps. I walked in here looking for something to steady the spinning going on in my head. I had all these questions, these forecasts, these predictions, and lacked any foundation to stand and answer them. These rows of books had plenty of questions in them, maybe they had answers in them too. In truth, desperation inspired me to come here.

In a socially appropriate frenzy, I stepped through rows of books. I searched, looking for anything that could provide a kernel of relief. It could have been anything; I tried the self-help books, aphorisms seemed too empty at the moment. I tried the religious texts, too esoteric. I tried philosophy; this is where I started to browse intently.

Nietzsche found my eyes, I had read some of his before; I had no desire to fall even deeper. There were a lot of literary philosophers here, a lot of books concerned with being and time, with the great questions. Not that I didn't appreciate the curiosity, but my mind was aching, and I was interested in the practical. I needed relief now; I was running out of time and I needed more of it. As I browsed these books, the original feeling of what I presumed to be anxiety over the future, soon developed into a greater feeling of disappointment about my past.

No longer was I sure this was the major I wanted; I was no longer sure of my path. In truth, I expected a sentiment like this to hit me with a great dramatic punch, with tears and shock, but reality is more mundane. Soon I simply felt deflated, the air fizzled out of me, and I wanted to sink into the library floor.

Have I been wasting my time?

Was this really what I wanted?

How could I ever be sure of anything?

Doubt, doubt, and more doubt. Bottles of doubt, all popped, and the froth was misery. There was nothing exciting or noble about this misery, in reality it was quite boring, and that made it worse.


A beautifully regal old woman walked by the row I occupied. She had a tired face, grey hair, but no glasses; she wore old clothes. In the row, my realizations had caused me to place my hand against the books, as if to brace against something, something to hold me against the world. We looked at each other, and through some inarticulate wisdom I'm sure she acquired through pain of her own, she smiled at me with her eyes. She didn't say anything to me as we looked at each other.

She walked into the row and pulled out a thin black hardcover book. In gold engraved-like letters, it read On the Shortness of Life, the author read SENECA. She held the book in one hand and outstretched it to me:

"This might help. Or it might not. Good luck to you."

I took the book gently, and she walked away.

The encounter's peculiarity woke me up. Knowing no other solutions to the daze I was in this night, I took to reading it. The first page seemed like typical Greek wisdom of the ancient type. I was really in no mood for aphorisms and pithy sayings. Still, her assurance in handing me this book led me to reading this intently.

I stumbled into one passage:

"Everyone hustles his life along, and is troubled by a longing for the future and weariness of the present. But the man who … organizes every day as though it were his last, neither longs for nor fears the next day…"

How could I be that brave? Live each day with mortality hanging over me? Was that really a cure?

Another one:

"It is inevitable that life will be not just very short but very miserable for those who acquire by great toil what they must keep by greater toil. They achieve what they want laboriously; they possess what they have achieved anxiously; and meanwhile they take no account of time that will never more return."

A man who had died centuries before me knew my plight and would have shaken his head at such a modern man repeating it. The foolishness swirled in me.

I will never get the time back.

This is my punishment for busying myself with work. I never knew what it was for! No one prepared for me this! There were no classes on this!

I so desperately wanted to shut the book: I wanted to burn it. No one should read this, especially in a state like this. What do philosophers know? They knew how to take life and make it more unbearable. I read on:

"No one will bring back the years; no one will restore you to yourself. Life will follow the path it began to take, and will neither reverse nor check its course."

This was only making it worse. My eyes were looking for the most pessimistic words in the book, I noticed. My judgment was off. The lens by which I saw things was tinged with doom.

I hope this is temporary, I bargained with myself. I had to bargain. My head was a basket of racing things, but my external expressions were very composed. My brain a tempest, my body calm. Living this way seemed like a tough pursuit.

Maybe there was something else in this book. I fought the desire to shut the book and throw it away entirely. Maybe if I fixed my eyes with great intent, to see positive sentences, I could make it out of this intact!

"You are arranging what lies in Fortune’s control, and abandoning what lies in yours. What are you looking at? To what goal are you straining? The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately."


I shut the book and placed it back where it belonged.

If I lived immediately, I wouldn't want to live at all.


The mania of confronting the book slowed down. My desperation cooled down, but the numbness pervaded. No questions had been resolved in this little quest of mine, looking for answers in a library, in books, in the lives of men long since dead; I put my faith in the idea they were smart. The more I thought about Seneca, the more I came to terms with my dilemma. My dilemma was the universal dilemma.

Even a man as ancient as him, so far removed from any culture or custom I have ever been exposed to, could articulate the ineffable discomfort of growing older. So many paths open up, so many you think you can take, but then you grow up, you get older, and the paths close up. The waves of limitless potential soon die down, and the sea is calm, but a calm sea is terrifying, because it is not taking you anywhere.

You end up adrift.

So this is what it means to grow up, I thought.

Defeated, I paced out of the library, deliberately and with resignation. The librarian must have left.

The nightly campus was uninviting and now colder than the library. The university no longer felt like a university, just a bunch of buildings and offices with massive lawns in between them. I chose a walkway and started a trek back to my off-campus apartment; a journey far enough to think.

I was going to graduate and I was going to have to choose. I guess philosophy does have a consolation, it may hurt to strip away fanciful ideas, but you have to. Santa was not real, the tooth fairy was not real, and now another great secret has been revealed to me.

There is hardly any sense to any of this.

As I walked in the night back to my apartment, even though that youthful hope left me, there was no great breakdown. There were no tears. I suppose I should think it fortunate I was spared the drama.

I guess I just grew up.

(Book passages taken out of Seneca's On the Shortness of Life)

April 30, 2021 08:26

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1 comment

Ruth Porritt
04:32 Aug 08, 2021

Dear Juan, Your skill with description is remarkable. Also, I am impressed by your ability to create a razor-sharp, crystal clear narrative voice. I am trying to improve my own descriptive writing skills (particularly in short stories) and I have many things to learn from you. Have a great weekend, and catch you later, Ruth


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