Tuesday, August 20, 2013
I noticed today that, over at Canterbury Tales, Taylor Marshall has written a Final 500 Words to College Students. I recently wrote my own version of this letter to my cousins who just went off to college. At first, I did not intend to post it since it included some information of a personal nature. But, I think I can adapt it so that it addresses the new college freshmen in your life as well.
Also, note that I originally wrote this for someone who was not Catholic, so I had to speak more generally about learning and the moral life. I think if I had been writing this for my own son, or for a fellow Catholic, I would have included advice of a more Catholic nature (for example, make sure you go to Mass and confession regularly, find a spiritual director, maintain your prayer life, don't compromise what you believe in, etc.).
Please feel free to share this with any new college students you know, and let me know if it was of any help to them.
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It feels a little awkward for me to be writing this letter. I am only 33 years old, hardly among the “wise and learned”. I myself often feel that I do not know as much as I should, or act as responsibly as I should. What sort of life experience could I possibly draw from so as to prepare you for this grand adventure? I have been to college, I’ll tell you that. Shoot, I’ve been to a lot of college. 8 years of college. I know what I learned along the way and what I wish I could have done differently. So, I guess that counts for something.
When I graduated from high school, I was a fearful person. I was afraid of taking risks, afraid of what others might think, afraid of failure, afraid of the unknown, afraid of stepping outside my comfort zone, afraid of being too far away from home. When my parents drove me to Lindsey Wilson College, helped me unpack my things, and finally left me, alone and friendless in a place that was radically new, I was tremendously, overwhelmingly afraid.
The best thing I ever did in college was to laugh in the face of my fears. “I cast you out, you naysayer!” If I ever had a thought in my mind that I didn’t have what it took to do something, I made that my reason for doing it. To walk up to a beautiful girl and talk to her, to run for homecoming king, to start up a new club on campus, to write for the school paper, to talk about my faith with others, to fight a guy who wouldn’t leave me alone, to get my ear pierced, to dress how I wanted to dress: to others these were probably very small things, but to me they were big things and I was determined to do them. I had to know what I was capable of, and I found that I was capable of more than I thought.
Of course, even though I tried my damnedest to act in defiance of my fears, there were still times in which I allowed them to hold me back. For example, I never studied abroad. I could have spent a semester in Rome or Austria! I told myself that I could not financially afford it, and it would delay when I intended to graduate. But, deep down I think I was just afraid.
I never acted in a play. I never sang karaoke. Hell, to this day I’ve never sang karaoke. My wildest fantasy is to stand up on a stage and just belt out a Journey song like there’s no tomorrow. But, I never did and I’m not sure I ever will. I haven’t quite conquered that one yet.
God knows I let many interesting and beautiful people walk on by. What friendships might I have formed if only I had been courageous enough to put myself out there and see what came of it?
My point is that I still don’t think I exhausted the full measure of what my many years in college had to offer. I tell you, you simply cannot be afraid. The college life offers so many rare and amazing opportunities. It is a crime and the grossest form of negligence to not take advantage of as many of these as possible. Don’t be afraid to step out on a limb. Don’t be afraid to be a fool. Don’t be afraid to challenge yourself and your pre-conceived notions of what you think you are cable of. “Set out into the deep” (Lk 5:4).
Draw the Line
I also think that college is the time to ask the difficult questions, and it is vitally important that you answer them. Why I am here? What does God want me to do with my life? What do I believe in? What is right and what is wrong? G. K. Chesteron once said, “Morality, as in art, consists in drawing the line somewhere.” Where is that line for you? I told myself that I would not get too preachy with this letter, and I hope I am true to that. But, I do think that you must find out where you stand on these questions. Your answers to them essentially become the foundation upon which you build a life for yourself. These answers become your bearings when the lofty heights of higher academia attempt to “toss you to and fro” and “carry you about with every wind of doctrine” (Eph 4:14).
Of course, if it were up to me, you would stand on “the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus as the cornerstone” (Eph 2:20), but it’s not up to me, it’s up to you. And while you are not quite a clean slate, you have still much left to learn about these questions. Be sure that there will be a vast myriad of voices trying to answer those questions for you.
My advice is to “test all things and hold fast to what is good” (1 Thes 5:21). Now is the time to let everyone have their say. When I went to college for the first time, I was fortunate enough to at least know what I believed. I just didn’t know why I believed it. As I progressed through the college years, my faith was challenged. I had to ask myself if I still wanted to be Catholic, or if there was perhaps a better place for me. I knew that Jesus was God and in my mind there was no denying that. As such, atheism, agnosticism, and the various non-Christians religions (Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, etc.) were never all that appealing to me, either emotionally or intellectually. But, the Protestants seem to have good reasons for why I shouldn’t be Catholic! My college years were really the first time I was ever confronted by another way of believing.
In order to test my faith and expose its weaknesses, I basically set it up against all opposing voices. I purposefully entered into discussions about religion. I joined web forums where I knew there would be a lot of members who not only disagreed with Catholicism but who outright hated it. I read books and articles from the great apologists of every Christian tradition. I debated the leaders of the other Christian groups on campus. A lot of times I got my clock cleaned, but to me that was a good thing because it exposed the areas where my knowledge was weak and it allowed me to become familiar with other ways of thinking and believing and living.
Now, I realize that for most 18-19 year olds, these questions are not very important. You may be more concerned with which classes you are going to take, which clubs you are going to join, which dorm you’re going to live in, the ratio of males to females on campus, etc. But I tell you, the difficult questions even bear upon these concerns. After all, how will you decide which classes to take or what your degree will be if you don’t know what God wants you to do with your life? How will you treat those females and form your relationships with them if you do not know what is right and wrong?
For example, some will say that pre-marital sex is okay, as long as you use protection. Catholics believe that pre-marital sex is wrong and even using protection is wrong. What do you say? More importantly, why do you say it? And why do Catholics say what they say? These questions become much more crucial than you first thought once they determine whether or not you’re going to hop in bed with the first attractive person you see!
Moral of the story: Use this time of great learning and discovery to determine where you stand. Don’t be afraid to let opposing voices have their say. The world chews up and spits out anyone who is neither here nor there. You must know what you believe in.
All in the Family
Finally, I want to close by encouraging you to never take your family for granted. Earlier I said that my parents left me at Lindsey Wilson College alone and friendless, but that was not entirely true. My twin brother Matt was there, praise God, and I don’t know what I might have done without him.
My twin and I have always leaned on each other. My whole life I never even had a bedroom to myself until I started my first Master’s degree and Matt moved on to work in Louisville. We have also always been a lot alike. Our personalities are a lot alike. We have many of the same strengths and weaknesses. Since we were always together, we shared the same experiences that shaped us into the people we are today. As a result of all this, I can always be sure that there is at least one person in this world who understands me perfectly, who knows what I’m feeling and why I’m feeling it, who knows what it’s like to struggle with what I struggle with, because he struggles with it too.
My point is that you should maintain your relationships with your siblings and your parents. I realize that this can be difficult. You might be thinking, "They are the past, college is the future." You might not always get along with your parents. You probably fight a lot with a sibling or two. But think about it, your family knows you better than anyone else. They know what you've been through. They know why you are the person you are today. You will still have them long after you have graduated college.
As such, if you are in trouble, there should really be no one better to help you than an older sibling, or even a younger one ... and you should be there for your siblings too, even though you "moved off to college." A person ought to at least be able to depend on his family to be the voice in his corner, not the voice against him. If you begin to make this your philosophy for dealing with your family members, then those relationships will give you hope and security when everyone else proves fake, or cold, or unfaithful. This is what family should be all about.
One More Thing ...
I think that’s all I want to say. I hope it helps. Please, take care of yourself, and don't ever forget: You have what it takes.