Yesterday I was sitting at a bar with four of my best friends since my very first semester at DeSales. This morning I took my last undergraduate final. This afternoon I had dinner with two of my best friends who I’d only become close with over the past six or so months. This evening I moved out of my college dorm for good and drove back to NJ. Life comes at you fast, and sometimes you need to step back and let it unravel. This is a reflection on my time at DeSales. It’s overly long and self-indulgent, and there isn’t really a point to it per say- just to put some things down on paper at a milestone in my life. I am sure there are typos here, I’m fixing them as I find them, grammar is not one of my strong suits
It’s often said: the worst thing about DeSales is that it’s so small, everyone knows everyone and everything. But I’ve come to realize, that the best thing about DeSales is that it’s so small, everyone knows everyone and everything.
It’s a significant cultural adjustment starting your Freshman year at any college, let alone DeSales. Not only are you all of a sudden on your own, no parental supervision, but you’re also thrown into a community of a couple thousand, which for most of us is a small fraction of the size of towns and cities where we grew up. We all came to college, with a vague idea of what it was going to be like, something like a fresh start than a four-year party.
I never so much got that “fresh start” after high school, I came to DeSales with five other people from my (small) high school. I couldn’t really reinvent myself overnight because I was around people who knew me. I was frustrated by this for a while, it felt like I had been cheated of a “quintessential college experience” by having stories from high school follow me to college, and not being able to become a new person on freshman move-in. These people from high school, especially my friend Gerry, kept me accountable when it may have been tempting to embellish or gloss over bits of high school.
Beyond just the “fresh start” part of that college mystique the high school students buy into is not just that college is one big party, but that there are no strings attached. The way college is portrayed in pop culture is that it’s a libertine “find yourself” and “experiment with everything” environment. I was quickly disabused of this notion my freshman and sophomore year. You don’t get to go around willy-nilly doing and saying whatever you want with no social consequences. You will, and I did, get a particular reputation around campus. People will know what happened last weekend. People will know you and your girlfriend are fighting. People will know who hooked up with who. There are no real secrets. People swap stories like social capital especially at a school this small. You can’t just “disappear” into a crowd.
I’ve told prospective students more times than I can count: DeSales is what you make of it. If you want to party, there is certainly a nightlife. If you want to have a chaste, temperate, college experience, there’s ministry community at a lot of folks who come here for that kind of lifestyle. If you want something else, or a mix of the two, there’s just about every imaginable lifestyle in between. I certainly made a choice my freshman year, and freshman year was one long party for me. To paraphrase Clint Eastwood’s character from Heartbreak Ridge “I’ve drunk more beer… and pissed more blood and stomped more ass that all of you numbnuts put together… You men do not impress me!” I thought I was quite the swinging Richard my freshman and sophomore years, so it was only fair that over my junior and senior years life would knock me down a few pegs.
In a lot of ways, I think I peaked my sophomore year. Sophomore year is what I reminisce about when I think “college”. I was a sophomore who thought I ran the damn school. I was in a relationship with a beautiful, fun, woman, a relationship I found fulfilling. I had two part-time jobs and more money than I knew what to do with. I went out almost every weekend, some of my best party stories are from sophomore year. I thought I was going to go to law school. Things made sense, but what I realize, looking back, is that it was just an illusion. I thought I had everything together because I was faking it. The plans I had weren’t realistic, and the life I was living wasn’t sustainable. I broke up with my girlfriend. I quit my job. I lost my focus academically. I fell away from my friends a little, I spent my first summer since middle school largely unemployed. While everything was in reality crumbling, from the outside it looked like I had it all together. I was taking over as the Captain of DeSales EMS, I had been officially hired as an RA, my grades were great. I learned that having direction and purpose was more important than having a title. Leaving sophomore year, I’d collected a lot of titles, resume boosters, but I’d lost my purpose, and I felt very alone.
Junior year is, I like to think, the year I really grew up. It had its ups and downs. At first, I loved being an RA, I met lots of new people, made new friends, turned 21 in December. By the winter the bloom had come off the rose. I had fallen into some old habits, being an RA had crushed my spirit, I had a surgery, and did some things I wasn’t proud of. I was very unsure of who I was or what I was doing. I realized I didn’t really have a good reason for a lot of the things I did, I just acted on impulse a lot.
The second semester Junior year made me the person I am today, I think. It taught me the influence of randomness, of “black swans” on my life. We like to think that we’re in control, and the modern world gives us that illusion. But we’re not, “No matter how sophisticated our choices, how good we are at dominating the odds, randomness will have the last word”. Sometimes in life, a person, or event, comes through like a wrecking ball, shattering that illusion of control, reminding us that we’re all victims of chance.
At the risk of sounding cliché, I met a girl. We met in February 2016, and over the next six months give me the highest highs and lowest lows. It was very much an on again off again relationship, and like most relationships existing in the real world, doesn’t really fit into any of the standard molds of relationships, so I’m going to decline to try to describe it in too much detail. I could draw parallels to songs, movies, and literature, to try and explain it, but I’ll spare you being that vomiting inducing. Suffice it to say, it was a relationship that simultaneously made me feel like a kid again, and like the man I didn’t know I wanted to be. The relationship ended, but like most things, its lessons endured. I walked out of my Junior year with everything together- and a different outlook on life. The summer of 2016 was probably one of the best of my life- I didn’t work, but I was seriously happy for the first time in a long time.
What I mean when I say I was happy is this, that I didn’t just have momentary blips of not being unhappy, but I was just in a pleasant state most of the time. I’ve found that the best measure of my own happiness is where my mind goes when left unsupervised. If when left to wander my mind goes to happy memories and positive aspects of my future, then I consider myself happy. However, when my mind goes to unhappy memories and an uncertain future I consider myself unhappy. For the summer, I was happy, I reached a kind of zen for a few short months.
Most of my time at DeSales, I hated that I had picked a school this insular, with this much gossip. There are only a handful of undergrads, walking into senior year, I could give you the nickel version of pretty much anyone, my characterization of them very well may be inaccurate, but there aren’t a huge number of people about whom I could say “yeah I have no idea who that is”.
People will often lament “DeSales is just like high school”. One of my friends recently said after getting her first internship in a “real” workplace, “the world is just one big DeSales!”. So it seems, just like in the Bowling for Soup song, High School really doesn’t ever end. Many of the things people criticize DeSales for really aren’t DeSales specific problems, they’re just part of life. I often wished I could get away from my problems, get away from my reputation, get away from my past. By the time I was a senior I had two failed relationships with DeSales students under my belt, along with a line longer than I’d like to admit of dates, courtships, hookups, or as college students would put it: people I had a “thing” with or had at one point “talked to”. Add on top of that three years of baggage, arguments, rumors (true and false), and people I had met in a negative way, either through my role as an RA or an EMT on campus. Being at DeSales just seemed frustratingly complicated at by the beginning of my senior year.
At DeSales, as in life, you can’t just run away from the things you’ve done. I’m only coming now to realize how valuable that is. If I was at a school where I could easily escape any of the stupid or questionable things I’ve done, I would be nowhere near the person I am today. Just learning how to be around people you don’t like or don’t want to be around is an incredibly important life skill.
Being constantly surrounded by people you know forces an intense self-awareness. When someone has a poor opinion of you, you don’t have the luxury of brushing is off and avoiding them. The luxury of saying off the bat “well… that’s just like… your opinion man”. You have to confront and seriously consider what other people think of you. This is at times a painful process but real self-examination always is. You may decide at times that a person’s opinion is junk and they’re just being an ass (these people do exist, surprising I know), but it’s important to consider what they’re saying because it will follow you. You may refute what they say, you may think they’re wrong, but you can’t just stick you head in the sand and pretend they’re not saying it. I can say I am without a doubt a better person because of that self-awareness I’ve gotten from DeSales. I hated it for a long time. I hated that certain people on campus looked at me as an irresponsible, womanizing, typical college guy. I hated that some people looked at me as a self-important know it all. I hated the opinion my ex(s) and their friends had of me. For a long time, I stuck my head in the sand. But to paraphrase a comedian whose name I don’t remember, “when somebody says you’re an asshole, you don’t get to decide they’re wrong, it’s not up to you”. I hated it because a lot of people had limited interactions with me, and I felt were drawing unfair conclusions from incomplete data. I really thought I was more than all that, that I was a good person.
This eventually (after too many years) forced me to confront two things. First, that while I thought I was a good, decent, personable guy, the way I was presenting myself sometimes didn’t reflect that. Second, I wanted everyone to reserve judgment on me until they had really gotten to know me, meanwhile, I was the king of making snap judgments about someone after hearing something about them or having one interaction. I wanted everyone else to give me the benefit of the doubt, however, believed that my gut judgments on people’s character were always accurate.
I realized all this, and then realized how many “enemies” I had made by simply refusing the recognize that other people may… actually be humans who have bad days or complicated lives like me. I remember saying to one of my friends a few months ago in the midst of extreme frustration with this school that “there’s nothing left for me here, I just need to get out of this place, move on to what’s next”. I wanted a clean slate. I wanted to leave all of the baggage behind. It was only late in this semester, my last semester, that I realized far from there being nothing for me here, everything for me is here.
My last semester I started to consciously be friendlier and approachable to everyone, including those I thought I disliked. I reconnected with people who I had falling outs of varying varieties with. I met people and interacted with social circles I had previously dismissed as “too this” or “too that”, or people I had just decided I wasn’t going to like. I took ownership, really for the first time, of ways I had mistreated people around me, and I let go of grudges I had been holding for years. Granted “taking ownership” of having not treated people with the dignity they deserve, or “letting go” of a feud doesn’t excuse anything or make that history go away. I don’t get to decide “well I’ve forgiven myself on your behalf for acting like an ass”. But it is a step in the right direction. These things did me no good to cling on to (yeah I know I’m starting to sound like a pop self-help book you bought at a thrift shop, trying to bring it around).
I was amazed by how quickly these interpersonal conflicts I had built up into mountains in my head reverted to the molehills they were once I stopped playing into them. Why I was still ignoring and avoiding people who I had some kind of argument with 3 years ago is really beyond me. Ok, actually I do know why. I was playing into these conflicts because it was fun, well, maybe not fun, but it was something to do. Acting like I was some Game of Thrones character, playing interpersonal politics gave me something to do. There’s something addicting about having “enemies”. About being able to say; “Oh that height/ sports team/ group of friends/ major doesn’t like me, and I don’t like them”. Having “enemies” makes you feel like kind of a badass, makes you feel good in a weird way. None of this is good, or healthy, or productive, but it is, that’s the way I am, or people are. Once I stopped pretending I had enemies around every corner, the way this campus looked to me changed. It revealed the great diversity and tremendous amount of human beauty at a place people complain about being homogenous and tiny.
It took me years of being the awkward loner in the corner, a surly introvert to realize that I like people, being a part of something, a community. The worst things about DeSales are also its best things. The reasons for hating it are also reasons for loving it. To quote Chesterton;
“The point is not that this world is too sad to love or too glad not to love; the point is that when you do love a thing, its gladness is a reason for loving it, and its sadness a reason for loving it more. All optimistic thoughts about England and all pessimistic thoughts about her are alike reasons for the English patriot.”
We say we hate this school. We bitch and moan constantly. We all say we wish we had gone somewhere else, and most of us at one point had serious thoughts about transferring. But there’s something that keeps us here, there’s a part of us that loves it here. I know what kept me here, and it wasn’t the academics, the athletics, or the sunsets, it was the people.
I realized that this terrible little school, with its terrible people, represents the best parts of humanity. I realized all this, just in time to leave it. I was the guy for years who would act like an angsty nihilist teen, say, quoting Bukowski, “I don’t hate people I just prefer when they’re not around”. I realize now, I didn’t like people, or community because it’s hard. People are difficult, and instead of trying I would just withdraw inside myself and segregate myself. I realized years late, that I love people. I love the diversity of thought, I love connecting with other human beings,
“I want to love my neighbor not because he is I, but precisely because he is not I. I want to adore the world, not as one likes a looking-glass, because it is one’s self, but as one loves a woman because she is entirely different. If souls are separate love is possible. If souls are united love is obviously impossible. A man may be said loosely to love himself, but he can hardly fall in love with himself, or, if he does, it must be a monotonous courtship. If the world is full of real selves, they can be really unselfish selves.”
I got the clean slate I wanted. I didn’t get it by moving somewhere new where nobody knows me. I got it by a change in attitude. I love this community, and leaving it now, having just realized that, is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.
“You matter, your life matters, and what you make of it. But you can only make something of your life if you realize others matter more” -Rodger Scruton
I often wonder, what my legacy will be at this school once I’ve gone. Everyone has a legacy after they leave. Everyone leaves an imprint on the people they’ve interacted with. I wish I was naïve enough to say I’ve had a uniformly positive impact on those around me, but I’m more self-aware than that. I know what it feels like to have your heart ripped out of your chest by someone you trust, and I know what it feels like to do that to someone. Even in the last couple months having taken a less cavalier attitude with other people’s feelings, there are a couple relationships with (now former) friends that I seriously f’ed up. At the same time, I’ve met so many great people in the last two semesters who I wish I had met years ago, people who I feel like I didn’t get enough time with. But I don’t know if more time is it, I could probably spend a lifetime with these people and still want more. Leaving friends who I’ve known since freshman orientation, who I’ve spent most of my college career with, felt like it was too soon.
One of the more enduring quips from JRR Tolkein’s Fellowship of the Ring is Bilbo Baggins speaking to his neighbors at a party, saying “I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like; and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve”. This is how I feel leaving DeSales, leaving all my friends, classmates, coworkers, associates, whatever words I should use to describe my relationship with the people here. Having said a lot of goodbyes in the past week I began to acutely feel the passage of time. It was only when it was coming to an end that I realized how much more I wish I had done.
[H]e does not belong to it, or to any place; and the proof of it is this, that he thinks of [it] as a place. The moment we are rooted in a place, the place vanishes. We live like a tree with the whole strength of the universe.
I am rooted to DeSales, and it was only in my last semester that I came to appreciate it for what it is. I am rooted here, and just I am rooted, I vanish.
I’ll leave you with this; Father O’Conner said to me regarding our respective future paths-” I guess you and I are in the same boat right now, I’m sure we’ll get it all figured out. I have faith there are great things still to come”
As always- It’s a great day to be a Bulldog.